CRISPR-Cas9 and other synthetic biology techniques, tweaking nature at the level of the microscopic, have made modern biological warfare an unprecedented (and inevitable) threat, according to a new federal report.

Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology was released by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine this week.

Their conclusion: some pathogens like viruses could be made by rogue scientists in shadowy labs right now, and while bacteria may be too complicated currently, the technology is marching forward by leaps and bounds.

“The U.S. government should pay close attention to this rapidly progressing field, just as it did to advances in chemistry and physics during the Cold War era,” Michael Imperiale, a microbiologist at the University of Michigan, and chair of the committee responsible for the report, said. “It’s impossible to predict when specific enabling developments will occur; the timelines would depend on commercial developments as well as academic research, and even converging technologies that may be come outside this field.”

The Department of Defense-funded study put together a framework of the most pressing threats, as well as the threats of less concern that yet remain on the radar.

The greatest dangers include:

  • Re-creating known pathogenic viruses, such as smallpox and other now-rare contagions where there may be limited immunity or chance for vaccination among millions or even billions of people. In the case of smallpox, a group of scientists recently caused a stir, when in January they announced their efforts to create a smallpox vaccine, but in doing so acknowledged they had created a horsepox analog that critics contend could be a blueprint for terrorists. Poliovirus was synthesized by a team of scientists in a laboratory in 2002.
  • Making existing bacteria more dangerous and deadly, likely through CRISPR-Cas9 genetic manipulations.
  • Devising new biochemicals through in-situ synthesis.
  • Tweaking existing viruses for maximum harm.
  • Manufacturing chemicals or biochemicals by exploiting natural metabolic pathways.

The list of germs of concern, from a genetic complexity standpoint, stretches from the simple Botulinum A Toxin and poliovirus, to influenza and Ebola and herpes, to complex bacteria such as E. coli.

The team identified the bottlenecks with each synthetic method. For instance, the process of “booting," which is converting nucleic acid into an actual organism, is the major current limitation in creating viruses and bacteria for warfare use. Creating new viruses or tweaking them to maximize virulence is currently limited because of a lack of knowledge on how the viral genomes are organized.

The committee also identified capabilities that are likely to be dependent on commercial drivers, like making existing bacteria more dangerous through genetic manipulations, and manufacturing chemicals and biochemicals by exploiting natural metabolic pathways.  

“The levels of concern depends on the specific applications or capabilities that it may enable,” Imperiale said in a National Academies statement.

Also this week, the non-profit Lexington Institute issued a report entitled Invisible Scourge that assesses the biological and chemical threats to the United States.

The conservative-leaning think tank concludes that the U.S. spends $700 billion annually on defense, but only a paltry little bit of it preparing against germs and toxins.

“Against that backdrop, the neglect of chemical and biological threats in U.S. national security plans is a crisis waiting to happen,” the Institute report states. “Unfortunately, it is a crisis in the making that almost no one in official Washington sees… It is nearly inevitable that various state-based or non-state actors will contemplate such aggression in the future.”