Misuse of gene technology
The application of any powerful technology usually has two sides: a positive and a negative one. In addition to the use of recombinant DNA techniques for humanitarily and industrially advantageous purposes, the same techniques can also be used for potentially destructive ventures. The 2001 anthrax scare highlighted the dangers of bioterrorism. Possibilities for misuse are myriad. For example, it would be relatively simple to introduce a gene for a potent toxin (such as botulin or bungarotoxin, both letal at a 10-100 µg dose in an adult) into a laboratory bacterium, thus producing sufficient toxin to efficiently kill off the "enemy" by simply mixing the toxin with drinking water or so. Another gruesome application would be to use highly toxic microorganisms against which the people who distribute it have been made resistant (by vaccination, for example). A well-publicized case where an enemy attack with any of the biotoxins has resulted in the death of the victim was a 1978 attack on a Bulgarian defector: he was prodded by an umbrella while walking in London, and four days later he died of cardiac arrest. A pellet was removed from the body (of less than 2 mm long) that had contained 400 µg of a biological toxin.
The earliest report of "biological warfare" stems from the 14th century: a plague epidemic broke out in the Far East when a Genoan colony on the Crimea was besieged by Mongols for a long time. Inside the city all was well until the Mongols decided to put a few bodies of people who had died with the plague into their hurling machines and throw it into the city. Soon the Genoan survivors deserted the city and left over the sea, taking the plague with them, and spreading it to Italy.
A more "rational" use of biological warfare was reportedly developed during the second World War. During this war, particularly the Japanese devoted a significant effort (until the very end of the war) to develop -and possibly apply- biological weapons, mainly directed against the Chinese and Russian enemy. The alleged application included bombs containing plague-harboring fleas (they probably were not aware that this idea was not original and had been tried out already more than half a millennium ago). Churchill was also reported to have contemplated the use of biological weapons (bombs filled with anthrax bacilli in this case) against Germany in the final days of the war. However, the bombs were thought to be relatively inefficient, and the plan was canceled. On one occasion, the USA has been accused of having used biological warfare: this was in 1952 against China and North Korea, and would have involved the plague, cholera, typhoid fever, dysentry and encephalitis. The charges have not been well substantiated, though.
Fortunately, more than 80 countries (among which are the US and Russia) have adopted the 1972 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction. The countries who signed this will not conduct offensively oriented research and development, but may increase defensive research involving detection, protection and therapy. The USA indeed participates in this "defensive" (whatever that means) research: reportedly, in 1990 some $100 million was spent on this by the Department of Defense (was only about $15 million in 1980), and a high-security laboratory (usually associated with highly pathogenic organisms) was built at the Dugway Test Site in Utah (see the web site at http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/facility/dugway.htm for more info). The USA seems to be keen on destroying at least its chemical weapons by 2004, but nonetheless the USA is thought to have the most diverse and lethal stockpile of biological and chemical weapons of any country in the world, most of these weapons concentrated in the Western states of the US.
One of the biggest problems with this kind of arms race is that the variations on the theme are almost indefinite, and that it is very hard to verify (satellites do not see bacteria in a laboratory, and it is very difficult for a victim to "prove" biological warfare aggression). Also, the 1972 Convention is full of loopholes, one of them being that, for example, a private industrial concern is legally able to produce substances useful to biological warfare within the borders of most countries (including the USA) that signed the convention. However, to the positive side it should be mentioned that biological weapons are potentially dangerous to the citizens (and military) of the country who would apply such weapons, thus decreasing its appeal; it generally is not feasible to immunize an excessively large number of people without raising some suspicion with the enemy. On the other hand, with the development of new antibiotics and the possibility to make the pathogenic bacteria resistant to almost all other antibiotics, it is possible to just provide antibiotic pills to "non-enemy" citizens and military.
An interesting political twist related to trying to limit the effects of biological warfare is the Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program of the US Department of Defense (see http://www.anthrax.osd.mil/) designed to immunize all US defense personnel against anthrax. Even though it is clear that anthrax is an effective and lethal biological weapon that can be produced without advanced facilities, one should be careful to single out this potential weapon. There is a multitude of other potential biological weapons that are just as easy to produce and that may be just as effective. Of course, anthrax immunization will not prevent diseases caused by other bacteria or by viruses. Therefore, any rogue powers considering an attack against US defense personnel will know that an anthrax attack will not be effective, but there are so many other viable options to choose from that the net effect of the immunization effort on US security is very small.
Needless to say, biological weapons are just another application of gene technology, and with an increased distribution of the science and technology needed to develop such weapons, the risk of its application (for example, by countries headed by an insane leader or by an extremist government) increases. It is the task of all concerned governments, scientists as well as citizens to prevent this from happening at any point.
More on primarily chemical weapons is found at http://www.stimson.org/, which includes a listing of chemical weapons storage sites in the USA (http://www.stimson.org/pub.cfm?ID=107), and of the toxicity of biological agents. Much of the information on biological weapons has been removed from the site after September, 2001, for obvious reasons.
Bioterrorism is yet another twist to the already unpredictable field of biological warfare. In this case, the "enemy" is not a well-defined country, but a group of people where most of the members may not be easily identified. Because of an increased awareness of the world's susceptibility to terrorism (and bioterrorism in particular), the amount of information that has become available since the tragic events of September 11, 2001 is enormous. One suitable website is http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/bioterror/, containing materials from a 2001 NOVA documentary on "Bioterror". Informative bioterrorism websites include http://www.bt.cdc.gov/, http://www.nap.edu/firstresponders/ and http://www.acponline.org/bioterro/.Careers in Biotechnology
Biotechnology is a relatively new field, and there are a fairly large number of employment opportunities in this field, centered primarily in California and along the East Coast. There are approximately 2,000 biotechnology companies in the USA, including both small and relatively young companies and long-established agricultural, chemical and pharmaceutical industries that have included biotechnology in their research and development processes. The total revenue of biotechnology ventures is about $20 billion, and the US biotechnology industry is continuing to grow at a rapid pace in terms of sales and employment. A useful publication to get if you are interested in a career in genetic engineering is Genetic Engineering News (website http://www.genengnews.com/).
Biotechnology companies generally invest heavily in research and development. A typical new pharmaceutical product can take as long as 10 years to develop and can cost up to $250 million. Research generally is directed by scientists with doctoral degrees, and people with a Bachelor's degree in science and some research experience may be employed as research associates. Once a potential product has been developed by the research and development division, the production branch of the company takes over. Large-scale production not only requires people with scientific expertise but also people with a knowledge of engineering and manufacturing. Production also involves quality control, and quality assurance personnel is important in this respect, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has strict guidelines on tests that must be done on medicines that will be used by humans.
Biotechnology companies also employ individuals in a host of other areas, including sales and marketing, regulatory affairs, legal affairs, and public relations. However, in any of these areas a thorough knowledge of biotechnology is required in order to communicate well with others in the company and to understand the issues that are of central importance to the company.
A useful source of information on careers in biotechnology is the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) at 1625 K Street NW, Suite 1100, Washington, D.C. 20006, web site address: http://www.bio.org. A local source is the Arizona Bioindustry Association (http://www.azbioindustry.org/).
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Center for Bioenergy & Photosynthesis
Arizona State University
Room PSD 209
Tempe, AZ 85287-1604
13 February 2006
phone: (480) 965-1963
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