In the early days of atomic physics, it was realized that discoveries regarding nuclear fission and the chain reaction might be used for both beneficial and harmful purposes. The scientists involved recognized that, on the one hand, such discoveries could have important applications for medicine and energy production but that, on the other hand, they might also lead to the production of unprecedented weapons of mass destruction. (1) Foreseeing the potential weapons implications of experimental results regarding the chain reaction, Leo Szilard engaged colleagues in debate about the virtues of self-censorship. If dangerous discoveries were kept secret, he argued, then the development and use of such weapons might be avoided. However, similar discoveries were made and published by other physicists and atomic bombs were subsequently developed and used by the United States of America (USA) during the Second World War. Governmental regulation and censorship of nuclear science has since been common. (2)
Life science researchers find themselves in a similar situation today. The biological sciences are progressing rapidly and recent developments in biotechnology may have tremendous medical (and other) benefits for humankind. In many cases, however, the same discoveries that promote advancement of medicine could also facilitate production of biological weapons of mass destruction. An unclassified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) document entitled The darker bioweapons future claims that:
"advances in biotechnology ... have the potential to create a much more dangerous biological warfare threat ... engineered biological agents could be worse than any disease known to man." (3)
Though the dangerous implications of contemporary biology had been recognized earlier, (4) heightened concern followed the anthrax attacks in the USA in 2001.
There are numerous reasons to take the threat of biological weapons seriously. In comparison with nuclear weapons, the production of biological weapons is relatively easy and inexpensive; and information about how to produce biological weapons is readily available in published scientific literature. In comparison with nuclear science, where discoveries with weapons implications are usually classified, information sharing in the life sciences has traditionally been completely open. (2) The anthrax attacks in the USA and other recent episodes, finally, have revealed that the threat of bioterrorism is real.
The dual-use dilemma
Scenarios where the results of well-intentioned scientific research can be used for both good and harmful purposes give rise to what is now widely known as the "dual-use dilemma" and there has been growing debate about the dual-use nature of life science research in particular. Four recent cases involving the publication of dual-use discoveries have been particularly controversial.
In Australia, researchers inserted the mouse IL-4 gene into the mousepox virus hoping that the altered virus would sterilize mice and thus provide a means for pest control. To their surprise they discovered that they had produced a superstrain of mousepox that killed mice that were naturally resistant to, and mice that had been vaccinated against, ordinary mousepox. (5) This discovery implies that the same technique might enable production of vaccine-resistant smallpox. Because there is no known treatment for smallpox, vaccination is our only defence. This study was published in the Journal of Virology in 2001.
In a second study, researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook artificially synthesized a "live" polio virus from scratch. (6) Following the map of the polio virus RNA genome, which is published on the Internet, they stitched together corresponding strands of DNA, which they purchased via mail-order. The addition of protein resulted in the creation of a virus that paralysed and killed mice. …