Could biohacking be the future of terrorism?

By Santiago Campo

In recent years, we have experienced how, through Hollywood and some streaming platforms, science-fiction producers have increased fear in our society through series like “the Blacklist” and “Designated Survivor” in which they show some of the possible future landscapes that could result from our politics. They try to display how politicians and security agencies, together with scientists, would face a new phase of terrorism that would involve the deadliest tool if used for evil: biology. But how far from reality are these science-fiction works?

One of the most obvious differences between conventional terrorism and bioterrorism is the primary target. In the case of the use of explosives, for example, the target is the people, whereas bioterrorism is more indirect, targeting food supplies, water and drugs (Vincenzo Costigliola, 2010).

Biological warfare has existed for centuries. We have precedents that go back to 1155, with the poisoning of water with human bodies in Tortona by Emperor Barbarossa. However, to be able to analyse the present bioterrorism threats, we should base our data in more recent events, like the anthrax and ricin letters, in 2001 and 2013 respectively. These last attacks demonstrate a development in the use of biological agents. There are two main reasons for this advance. 

On one hand, there has been, together with the industrial and technological revolutions in the latest years, a great development in the study of biology, chemistry and many fields that relate to both of them. Evidence of this statement relies in the identity of the perpetrator of the anthrax letter attacks, who was Dr. Bruce Ivins, a trained microbiologist trained by the U.S. Department of Defense. (John Wikswo, 2014)

On the other hand, due to this rapid development in these sciences, very specific scientific content has become accessible to anyone with a computer, which has promoted self-instruction of these topics by non-scientists. This has caused faster development of these subjects and the evolution of a new and fast-growing field: biohacking. Biohacking is not necessarily malicious, as it can be practiced as a hobby by enthusiasts of biology, or even act as a large inter-connected community that can help to more quickly develop products and technologies that can save lives. Molecular technologies are now available which can be used by committed bioterrorist groups to manipulate and modify microorganisms so as to make them increasingly infectious, virulent or treatment-resistant for causing maximum casualties (N Moorchung, 2009)

However, ease of access to information is not the only factor that makes biohacking easier for members of the public. Nowadays, it is both cheap and non-restricted to purchase many biological items like DNA, microorganisms and enzymes. Non-scientists can even edit and modify these organisms in their own house (Jeanne Wallen, 2009). However, this gives rise to an essential ethical question: where should governmental organizations draw the line in regulations regarding biohacking to stop bioterrorism without blocking new advances in biology and healthcare?

As mentioned before, in many series we can see how terrorists use Biohacking to create mortal viruses and microorganisms that both spread very fast and kill almost instantaneously. Currently, we are far from this point, since we lack knowledge about which genes would hypothetically produce the phenotypes that would allow the virus to spread rapidly and, as well, kill almost instantaneously. Nevertheless, with the advances in big data and an exponentially increasing biohacking community, this information could become available in the future.

Nowadays, the real danger of biological warfare resides in the editing of existing microorganisms and in the strategies that bioterrorists adopt to cause the largest amount of harm without being exposed. Biological weapons have the potential to create uncontrollable events. The damage of a bomb or artillery shell is constrained by the blast radius. The effects of chemical and nuclear WMD dissipate over time. In contrast, biological agents are microorganisms that upon dissemination could proliferate exponentially within a single host, linger, and spread from one host to another, which gives them the potential to be unbonded in space and time. Common to all agents is the existence of a lag time between time of infection and onset of symptoms, which is the window of opportunity for malicious activity by the biohacker aimed at increasing the damage and spread of the disease (John Wikswo, 2014).

Biological agents can be divided into three main groups, which go in decreasing order of mortality, transmissibility and special action needed. First, we have high-priority agents such as anthrax, botulism and smallpox. Then, there are the second highest-priority agents (Brucellosis, ricin and psittacosis). Lastly, there are the third highest-priority agents, oremerging diseases like Nipah virus, hantavirus and yellow fever. (Michael D. Christian, 2013). Many biological warfare agents are naturally occurring or are easily derived from plants and could be transformed by biohacking. After this, the amount of harm caused depends on the strategy the terrorists adopt.

There are five main existent strategies for implementing bioweapons: “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” “Trojan Horse,” “Spoof,” “Fake Left,” and “Roid Rage”. A “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” occurs when a biological organism or toxin is modified through genetic engineering so that it can be expressed in an active form but does not present the normal epitopes. In a “Trojan Horse,” a biohacker maintains the epitope but re-engineers the active component to increase the biological threat/detectability ratio. The “Spoof” occurs when a benign agent is modified to express epitopes distinctive of a known toxin in order to trigger an unnecessary protective response. The “Fake Left” is a means to modify through selection or genetic engineering the method of transmission of an organism. Finally, the “Roid Rage” strategy aims to potentiate the effects of a common virus by expressing components of a deadly virus.

The present research efforts in academia are primarily focused on basic research on the pathogens that are considered to be potential bioweapons for terrorist attack. Rapid advances in the genomic sequencing of bacteria and viruses over the past few years have made it possible to consider sequencing the genomes of all pathogens that affect humans, the crops and livestock, upon which our lives depend,

a novel system that utilizes whole-genome comparison methods to rapidly focus on parts of the pathogen genomes that have a high probability of being unique.

Collaborations with comparative genomics algorithm developers have enabled major advances in pathogen detection. In addition, this detection will rely in many fields of biology like exploration in evolution and phylogenetics, annotating gene coding regions, predicting gene function and regulation, between others. Two key problems currently needing improved solutions are: aligning incomplete, fragmentary sequence and ordering, aligning and visualising non-colinear gene rearrangements (Tom Slezak, 2003). Due to the necessity of rapid identification and diagnosis, molecular techniques have been the ongoing focus of current research (Marcia A Firmani, 2014)

Additionally, from a policy perspective, the huge amount of resources in the hands of governmental organizations and the collaboration between different organisations and countries strengthen our capacity to defend against and track of bioterrorism. This can be observed by looking at treaties like “The Geneva Protocol of 1925”, that related to the protection of civilian persons in time of war and additional protocols commit the signatory nations to refraining from the use of biological weapons.

References:

John Wikswo (2014). The Biohacker: a threat to national security. CTC Sentinel (Volume 7, Issue 1)

Jeanne Whalen (2009). In atticks and closets, “Biohackers” discover their inner Frankenstein. 

Mary J.R. Gilchrist (2000). A national Laboratory network or bioterrorism: Evolution from a prototype network of Laboratories Performing Routine Surveillance. Military Medicine (165).

Tom Slezak (2003). Comparative Genomic Tools applied to bioterrorism defence. Briefings in Bioinformatics (Pages 133-149).

Michael D. Christian (2013). Biowarfare and Bioterrorism.

Marcia A. Firmani (2014). Molecular Diagnostic Techniques for use in response to bioterrorism.

N Moorchung (2009). Bioshock: Biotechnology and Bioterrorism.

Marko Ahteensu (2017). Synthetic Biology, genome editing and the risk of bioterrorism.

W F Klietmann (2001). Bioterrorism: implications for the clinical microbiologists.

Kunwar Shailubai (2003). Bioterrorism: a new frontier for drug discovery and development.

Review on the scientific approaches used during FBI’s investigation of the 2001 anthrax letters. National Academies Press (2011).

Stacy Langston (2013). The threat of domestic bioterrorism: fact or fiction. Journal of strategic security.

René Gottschalk (2005). Bioterrorism: is it a real threat? Med Microbiol Immunol.

Alan Brown (2003). Outbreak: what a real Bioterrorism incident would look like.

G. Greub (2014). Bioterrorism. Myth or reality?

Vincenzo Costigliola (2010). Bioterrorism: A Potential Weapon for Terrorist Attacks Through Food and Water Contamination: Evolution of Our Understanding of the Use of Chemical and Bacteriological Weapons.

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