Will the "New Biology" Lead to New Weapons?

By Wheelis, Mark | Arms Control Today, July/August 2004 | Go to article overview

Will the "New Biology" Lead to New Weapons?


Wheelis, Mark, Arms Control Today


Biology is in the midst of what can only be described as a revolution. It began in the mid-1970s with the development of recombinant DNA technology. Slowly at first but with increasing speed, related technologies have been developed that have dramatically expanded the experimental capabilities of modern research biologists and that are rapidly being adopted in such areas of applied biology as drug development.

These new technologies include genomics, proteomics, microarray technology, high-throughput screening techniques, combinatorial methods in both chemistry and biology, site-specific mutagenesis, knock-out mice, and many others.1 Collectively, these technologies are referred to as genomic sciences, or the "new biology."

This technology will have great power both for peaceful and hostile uses. Peaceful applications will include a wide range of new therapeutic agents of much greater specificity and safety than are currently available; hostile applications could include a wide range of new biochemical weapons that could transform the nature of combat in unprecedented ways.

Yet, policymakers have paid little attention to the new biology and its potential hostile applications, even though human physiology might be altered in ways that will raise a broad range of ethical, legal, political, and military issues. Policymakers need to consider these issues now before undesirable applications develop a momentum that will narrow the options for control.

The New Biology

Until recently, attempts to manipulate natural processes were largely unsuccessful as scientists were stumped by the fiendish complexity of physiological systems. The newly detailed understanding of the physiology of living organisms, however, is paving the way for breakthroughs in biology and biotechnology. By any measure-number of professional scientists, number of publications, new journals, funding level, etc.-the growth of this field is extremely rapid, with no sign of leveling off.

There has been a related growth in relevant computer and instrumentation technologies. For example, an entirely new discipline, bioinformatics, has evolved to manage the collection and analysis of massive amounts of new data. Likewise, a major instrumentation industry has developed to provide the sophisticated technology on which the new biology depends. Instrumentation technology has matured quickly: slow, crude prototypes requiring skilled operators have given way to highly sophisticated equipment that can be operated with minimal technical expertise. Additionally, experiments that needed milliliters or milligrams of material a few years ago now require only microliters or micrograms.

The result has been the swift production of new knowledge. This knowledge and related technologies have spread quickly around the globe as these commercially-available tools have become easier to use, more reliable, and increasingly affordable to individual laboratories.

Soon, scientists around the world will be able to tailor pharmaceutical agents to enhance or block specific physiological pathways. This will be a great boon for medicine but will also allow the development of a wide range of novel biochemical agents for hostile purposes.

Two aspects of the new biology have particular potential for military application: our new understanding of the nervous system and our greater comprehension of the mechanisms by which disease-causing microbes interact with humans, animals, and plants.

Manipulating the Nervous System-for Good and Ill

The nervous system is of great interest to biologists, for intrinsic reasons and because there is a huge economic market for the development of new pharmaceutical compounds for the treatment of mental illness, pain, and other medically important nervous system disorders. As we come to understand the detailed mechanisms that underlie such phenomena as pain, depression, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, and sleep disorders, we will be able to design new medications that will offer much greater effectiveness and specificity than current ones and that will have greatly reduced side effects. …

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Will the "New Biology" Lead to New Weapons?
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