Concerns About the
Misuses of Biotechnology
In early 1999 the British journal New Scientist carried a report from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Anaheim, California. Under the heading, “A Terrifying Power, ” it was reported that “[t]he world's first simple artificial life form could be constructed in the next few years” (1). But, the article went on to say, “the team leading the way have stopped work for the moment, fearing that their discovery might lead to the creation of the ultimate bioweapon in the shape of a synthetic 'superbug'” (1).
So just three decades after it was demonstrated that genetic engineering—the movement of functional genes between different species—was possible, it was being claimed that entirely artificial life could be created by biologists. This was no idle claim, as New Scientist explained, for the project to create an artificial life form was being carried out by Craig Venter and his colleagues at the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland; the group was responsible for describing the first complete deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) sequence of a cellular organism, that of Haemophilus influenzae, in 1995. In later work, which compared the genomes (DNA sequences) of simple microorganisms, they had identified about 300 genes that appeared necessary for life. In theory at least, “they could now build an artificial chromosome carrying these genes and wrap it up in a membrane with a few proteins and other biochemicals to create a simple synthetic organism” (1).
The genomes of numerous human pathogens are also currently being worked out (2). It might therefore be possible to discover what makes them so dangerous to us and to transfer such characteristics into an artificial life form.
By way of a coincidence, also some three decades ago, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was agreed in the early 1970s. Its aim was to prevent the misuse of biology in the production of just such terrifying