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Biotechnology allows humans to manipulate and create biological organisms, including pathogens and human cells. As such there is a risk that the technologies involved could be misused in order to cause harm to human beings, the ecosystem, or the economy. Securing the technology, and ensuring that it cannot be misused, is therefore a key consideration for any laboratory, organisation or country.Introduction to Dual Use Technologies

Synthetic biology technologies and relevant research can be classified as being "dual use" - IE they could be both beneficial and detrimental to human societies, the environment and other organisms - with a very small window of difference between what is good and bad. For instance, the same equipment and reagents that could be used to produce useful fuels or medicines in microbes, could also be used to create harmful microbes that produce toxic chemicals or even biological weapons (pathogenic micro-organisms). 

"Dual use technologies can be used for good and bad"
As such, considerations of security, safety and sensibility are important within the synthetic biology field. Harmful impacts from synthetic biology could come in the form of an engineered pathogen targeting humans or a crucial component of the ecosystem (such as rice, a staple crop which accounts for approximately 20% of all calories consumed by humans globally). On the other hand, synthetic biology is considered to be an important component of bio security against pathogens - wide access to enabling technologies is considered to be an important component in research that can counter existing or emerging biological threats - be they man-made or naturally-occurring. 

Institutional Oversight

Many educational institutions make use of "bio security oversight committees" or "institutional bio safety review boards", where proposed research undergoes peer review before it is greenlit. This adds a barrier to any dangerous research happening within universities - however, not all countries have such safeguards.

To complicate matters, much of the equipment as well as relevant products and services are available on the open market with few controls. Further, there are well-trained and knowledgeable biologists all over the world, with no overarching oversight body keeping track of what they are up to at a global level.

Potential Scenarios

However, while there are indeed concerns of "lone-wolf" scenarios, engineering a micro-organism is an expensive, complicated and long-winded task, that even the best scientists or companies will spend years working on. Engineering a weaponised micro-organism that can survive outside of laboratory conditions is even harder. Historically, it has taken the resources of State-sponsored biological weapons programmes to make this happen, and this work is now illegal under the Biological Weapons Convention, a international treaty banning harmful biological research and the acquisition, stockpiling and transfer of such weapons and research materials. 

There is well-placed concern that as the enabling technologies of synthetic biology become more advanced, the technical hurdles to designing and building such weapons are removed, and it will increasingly be possible for individuals to create what has previously required State-level R&D apparatus. Nevertheless, there has yet to be any criminal misuse of biotechnology in this capacity, and the culture of security continues to grow within the synthetic biology field especially. 

Many groups are working on solutions. The Global Challenges Foundation and scientists from the "Future of Humanity Institute" in Oxford University have placed synthetic Biology on a list of 12 technologies that could erase humanity to raise awareness of the issue. The International Gene Synthesis Consortium is a group of DNA synthesis companies that screens DNA orders from companies, universities and individuals against a blacklist of harmful organisms' genomes. The Monterrey Institute for International Studies has an active research group proposing solutions and highlighting areas of contentious research. 

Criminal use of synthetic biology could emerge through military bio-warfare, commercial bio-warfare,  bio-terrorism (possibly using dual-use products developed by legitimate researchers, and currently unprotected by international legal regimes), or even dangerous pathogens being accidentally leaked from a lab. As synthetic biology products become more and more integrated into the global economy or biosphere, additional vulnerabilities will emerge (IE  a benign but widespread synthetic biology product could be specifically targeted in order to cause disruption or damage). 

Further Topics in Detail

Ask a Biosecurity Question

Ask a GMO question

Biosecurity Organizations

Catastrophic Risk

Gene Sequence & Customer Screening


Additional readings

  • Australian Mousepox experiment
  • Fouchier Ferret experiments
  • JCVI H1N1 research