Home' Technology Review : March April 2006 Contents 10 FROM THE EDITOR
TECHNOLOGY REVIEW /
From the Editor
When, if ever, should editors not publish a story they
think is tr ue, but they know is controversial? Well,
if publication is dangerous or useless. That ques-
tion was suggested by this month s cover story by contribut-
ing writer Mark Williams (see "The Knowledge," p. 44).
Williams (for the record, my brother) spent 14 months
investigating genetically engineered biological weap-
ons. He immersed himself in their arcane biology, and he
interviewed numerous scientists and security experts. But
his journalistic coup was securing the candor of Serguei
Popov, a former Soviet bioweaponeer.
Popov described how Biopreparat, the Soviet agency
that secretly developed bioweapons during the Cold War,
created recombinant pathogens that produced novel symp-
toms. Some of those symptoms were very horrible. In one
case, Popov and his researchers spliced mammalian DNA
that expressed fragments of myelin protein, the insulating
layer that sheathes our neurons, into Legionella pneumoph-
ila, a bacterium responsible for pneumonia. In Williams s
account, "In test animals...the myelin fragments bor ne by
the recombinant Legionella goaded the animals immune
systems to read their own natural myelin as pathogenic
and to attack it. Brain damage, paralysis, and nearly 100
percent mortality resulted." But Biopreparat had more
expansive ambitions than poisoning populations. The mili-
tary scientists who ran the agency wanted bioweapons that
could alter behavior, and they investigated using pathogens
to induce memory loss, depression, or fear.
This information might be of only sinister, nostal-
gic interest, but for Williams s thesis. He argues that the
advance of biotechnology---in particular, the technology
to synthesize ever larger DNA sequences---means that "at
least some of what the Soviet bioweaponeers did with dif-
culty and expense can now be done easily and cheaply.
And all of what they accomplished can be duplicated with
time and money." Williams explains how gene-sequencing
equipment bought secondhand on eBay, and unregulated
biological material delivered in a FedEx package, can be
misused. He concludes that terrorists could create simple
weapons like Popov s myelin autoimmunity weapon, and
states could engineer the more ambitious recombinant
pathogens that Biopreparat contemplated.
All of this is tremendously controversial. Critics within
the U.S. defense community dismiss Popov s accounts of
what Biopreparat achieved. Most security experts believe
that creating any bioweapon---let alone a recombinant
pathogen---is di cult, and "weaponizing" those agents
is nearly impossible. And many biologists, whilst not as
sanguine about the di culties, think that a preoccupation
with bioweapons is counterproductive for two reasons:
rst, because funding biodefense research tends to dissem-
inate knowledge of how to develop such weapons; second,
because we don t have a very good idea of how to defend
ourselves against them.
When I quizzed people involved with national security,
they warned me o publishing. Our story might give our
enemies ideas, they said. If we had no recommendations
for improving public safety, we had better kill the piece.
These arguments have weight. Therefore, why publish?
We had encouragement. Distinguished scientists who are
familiar with bioweapons, including George Poste, the for-
mer chief scientist at SmithKline Beecham and the some-
time chairman of a task force on bioterrorism at the U.S.
Defense Department, were supportive. The scientists con-
rmed that the advance of biological knowledge o ered
malefactors new categories of weapons with new opportu-
nities for violence and coercion. As Poste told me, "Biology
is losing its innocence. For a long time, biology was irrel-
evant to national security. But that s changing. The biologi-
cal revolution means a determined actor can undoubtedly
build a biological weapon." Additionally, in February a long
report by the Institute of Medicine and National Research
Council of the National Academies entitled "Globalization,
Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences" provided
us moral support. It replicated much of our reporting and
conclusions, and while we were sorry to be scooped, we
were relieved to be in such respectable company.
Nevertheless, we took a number of precautions. We were
careful to occlude any recipes for bioweapons. What detail
we do provide is based on published research and has been
widely discussed. Finally, in the interests of balance, we
asked Allison Macfarlane, a senior research associate in the
Technology Group of MIT s Security Studies Program, to
rebut our argument (see "Assessing the Threat," p. 34).
Yet, in the end, we published the story because we
believed it was important. Modern biotechnology is
potentially a threat to our welfare, but the life sciences
will continue to advance. Thus, our best hope of coun-
tering the threat is to invest in research that will suggest
a technological solution. But as Serguei Popov himself
told us, "First we have to be aware." Write to me at jason
.firstname.lastname@example.org. Jason Pontin
The Loss of Biological Innocence
Advances in biotech present dark possibilities and an editor s dilemma.
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