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Biotech Bug Science

Synthetic Biology May Spawn Biohackers 320

Posted by michael
from the zergling dept.
nusratt writes "EE Times reports 'Design automation systems tailored to the task of genetic engineering . . . can lead to the accidental or deliberate creation of pathogenic biological components.' Design of molecular machines is analogous to doing system-on-chip work, and hackers 'will not need a detailed knowledge of biochemistry to effectively create complex biochemical machines.' A Harvard genetics professor says, 'Even if we don't have bioterrorists and teen-age biohackers, we will still create things that do not have the properties that we thought they would . . . Even if you are genetically resistant and recently immunized, you will have problems with artificial biological agents.' He also says that there are two big differences between this risk and nuclear weapons: (1) building weapons is harder; (2) synth-bio work is more accident-prone. Oh great, just great: script-kiddies with smallpox . . ."
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Synthetic Biology May Spawn Biohackers

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  • by Space cowboy (13680) * on Thursday July 08, 2004 @10:12AM (#9642596) Journal

    Even with a 'designer' bio-machine, the components will be similar/identical to already existing ones in normal life-forms. We know just how adaptable life can be, so even an unintentional slip-up could produce a noxious result :-(

    The problem is that a nuclear weapon needs an enormous number of things to be 'just so' before it'll go bang. You may be able to bodge together a 50% solution far easier when your building blocks are so much more adaptable...

    To draw a parallel with FPGA's, it's relatively easy to write a few hundred lines of verilog, which synthesize the gates wthin the adaptable fabric of the FPGA into a 60-80% solution. The hard bit is squeezing the last nanoseconds out of the device using technology mapping and hand-placement.

    The creation of tools to make bio-machines similar to verilog/VHDL would indeed potentially have grave consequences, but I can't see it going any other way. In both cases (Biology & chip-design) you have an enormous task to create something from scratch (enzymes/bases for biology, LUTs/LC's for FPGA's), so you write a description language and model in that instead. Far far simpler once you can map from the description to the reality...

    Simon
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 08, 2004 @10:14AM (#9642626)
    /. posters say almost the same thing everytime there is a dna/biotech story.

    how is this news?

    in other 'news' welders can be used to make bad things.
  • by leperkuhn (634833) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @10:22AM (#9642751) Homepage Journal
    I would think that there is a simple formula... #1. Someone figures out how to do something #2. Someone does it better #3. People kill each other Anytime you create a technology that is powerful, it will get abused. duh
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 08, 2004 @10:22AM (#9642760)
    This kind of threat is why the Europeans are so freaked out by GMO foods. In any event, genetic engineering will change our lives in ways that we can't predict. Life today is quite different from what the futurists were predicting in the 1950's. Just go down to the library and drag out some old editions of Popular Science.

    Creating mass havoc is usually harder than it looks. Consider the terrorists that used nerve gas in the Tokyo subway. If you had asked me, I would have guessed that letting off nerve gas in such a location would have killed thousands. It didn't quite work that way. I don't think we have to worry about bio-hackers for a long time.
  • Re:Outlaw Science! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 08, 2004 @10:24AM (#9642778)
    This is the #1 reason we should outlaw science and start living off the land again. Seriously, study anthrapology, hunter gatherers have more free time and are generally happier than us.

    Except, of course, for the rampant starvation and the fact that there is no way to support anywhere near the current population base. Oh, and all of us people with major diseases that are controllable by medicine will die.

    Gotta love that 50% infant mortality rate (or was it higher?)

    Oh, and I hope you're very happy in your 30 year lifespan. if you're one of the lucky ones.

    I gotta learn to not feed the troll.
  • by sweet 'n sour (595166) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @10:40AM (#9642967)
    I know it's therapeutic to attribute "Pure Evil" to script kiddies, but come on now.. It's one thing to cause mass mayhem on the internet.. quite another to cause mass murder. I'd be really surprised if script kiddies had that kind of carnage in them... Especially when they wouldn't be able to protect themselves from their own creation.

    I'd be much more worried about the non-hacker, well funded, professional genetic researcher.

  • by spacerodent (790183) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @10:44AM (#9643013)
    While on the surface it may seem possible to do all this in the next 20-30 years hte author seems to be forgetting all the equipment needed to handle and work with these type of organisms. As these are not typical consumer goods I wouldn't expect to see the prices come down like computer components either. I have no doubt a few cases will occur but it certainly won't be like with computer virsues where all you need is a computer and a compiler of some kind.
  • Promote Diversity (Score:4, Insightful)

    by blueZhift (652272) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @11:20AM (#9643480) Homepage Journal
    The danger posed by the relative ease of engineering new biological agents makes a strong argument for promoting genomic diversity in human beings. It is this diversity that makes it less likely that any particularly nasty bug is going to wipe out the human race. And indeed, this diversity often gives us clues to eventual cures for various diseases.

    Unfortunately, people often want the same thing or whatever is popular in the media. With genetic engineering, we could see a reduction in genomic variability as parents decide they want designer babies. We're already seeing an imbalance in the male to female ratio as sex selection becomes more and more viable an option.

    So dear /.ers, what can you do about this? Well, hmmm, MATE WITH SOMEONE DIFFERENT TODAY! Oops, forgot where I was, nevermind...

  • For reference: (Score:3, Insightful)

    by subtillus (568832) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @11:38AM (#9643717)
    Just so as you know, for the would be biohackers, the immune system is ridiculously complex and any slashdot posting, mine included could never do it justice.
    This is *the* book for beginning Immunology, written by Janeway who recently passed away:
    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0815 33642X/ qid=1089304040/sr=2-1/ref=sr_2_1/102-7999783-80057 25

    We've known about humoral immunity and mutation for a very long time. Nowadays the hotness is considered by many to be in the field of molecular mimicry and toll-like receptors...

    Imagine you're a virus, Cell X can blow up your house when his neighbour is in mode 1, however, Cell X's neighbour, Cell Y, has a communication system with cells X, A, B (and so on...) which can be highjacked to change cell Y's mood and make Cell Y change Cell X into mode 2.

    Mimic the communication peptides of important pathways, spew those about into the environment, highjack the immune system to make itself weak in fighting you. Eventually, the immune system gets the hang of killing you, but by that time, you're already in 5 more people who will in turn infect 5 more people and so on...

    TLRs are pattern recognition proteins that have "learned" over the eons "When you see molecular pattern X, don't listen to anything else anyone says because X is bad news. Go into Kill mode!". The huge thrust of this is that, sometimes Vaccines have low immunogenicity, or the wrong type of immunogenicity, if you can attach some PAMPs (pathogen assosiated molecular pattern) then these PAMP-r (the TLR) will make the cell respond appropriately.

    This is all of course, grossly simplified, but none the less appreciably interesting.

    Expect to see a lot of this stuff in the future.
  • by Wardish (699865) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @11:42AM (#9643770) Journal
    If you've seen some of my prior writings you may already know my opinions, as always I encourage replies and responses here or in private email, and if anyone believes this is a troll feel free to mark it and/or say so.

    In short:
    I think there are basically 2 competing concepts on how to handle this and similar problems.
    1. Heavily limit access to information, research, and experimentation.
    2. Free and open access to information, active support for open research and experimentation.

    I believe:
    The danger from nano/bio technologies is real.
    The dangerous time extends from now until the technology is mature.
    Restrictions to slow or halt this technology increases the danger period.
    Terrorist types are actively pursuing this technology.
    Terrorists gain more from increased time than from access to open research.
    Restrictions reduce the pool of skills and ideas available to deal with the danger.

    In more detail:
    As the subject line suggests, I don't believe we can shove this back in the box. In addition I don't believe that trying to limit or control the technology and it's distribution is going to be successful. While that process was affective (debatably as to how effective though) in limiting nuclear technology IMO because nuclear technologies require a large and very specialized heavy industrial base which in turn also required budgets that limited serious work to national sized organizations.

    This isn't true for bio/nano tech. Much of this work can and is being done on budgets that are easily in the realm of small companies, and even many individuals. Certainly within the grasp of those organizations we fear will be using it to harm us.

    Simply put, I believe that the knowledge is out there already. I believe that the more organized terrorist type groups are likely already pursuing these technologies actively.

    Now, if we pursue a path of limiting knowledge the results as I see them are 2 fold. 1. We will slow development of bio/nano malware (malevolent hard/soft/squishy ware) that the terrorist types are undoubtedly already working on. 2. We will stop development in all but a few officially sanctioned arena's. We will reduce by orders of magnitude the number of people who are skilled in working with these technologies. Additionally we will slow by a huge degree the overall advance of these technologies.

    I'm in agreement with those who believe that these technologies are extremely dangerous. My personal belief is we, as a intelligent species, have approximately a 40% chance of surviving the next 50 years. Where I disagree with many is that I believe those odds get much worse if we try to put heavy limits on knowledge, research, and experimentation. I believe that the more open and openly supported this technology is the more the odds improve.

    My reasoning is based on the following. I believe that if we start restricting knowledge dissemination, research, and experimentation then we will lose most of those who would have the skills, knowledge, and ideas that will be required to defend against bio/nano malware that will be released sooner or later. I don't think that any amount or level of restriction will stop organizations that are intent on using this to harm others. My belief is that all it will accomplish is to slow the development and ensure that the process's that are used by those working on malware are unique and only understood by the malware creators.

    In addition I believe that the danger is limited to the short period of time before this technology matures. I believe that giving malware developers more time is much more dangerous than the advantage they would get from open knowledge sources. The basis for this is my belief that a mature bio/nano technology will provide both personal and environmental monitors and defenses that will reduce the danger to a minimal scope and severity.

  • by k98sven (324383) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @11:43AM (#9643785) Journal
    The creation of tools to make bio-machines similar to verilog/VHDL would indeed potentially have grave consequences, but I can't see it going any other way.

    If all you have is a hammer..

    Sorry, but this analogy is weird. Biology does NOT follow any simple rules of logic. In fact, we don't even know the rules.

    A DNA sequence maps to an amino acid sequence, we've got that part pretty well figured out.
    The AA sequence maps to a protein or peptide. Right there, we're screwed. There is no ab initio method which accurately predicts protein folding. There are no reliable empirical methods either.

    You can't really rely on existing structures for predicting new ones either; Even a single mutation can give you a completely different structure. (Compare an ordinary hemoglobin to a sickle-cell mutated one)

    Ok, but just assume we can find out the structure, how do you determine the function of that protein?
    Again, there is no method of doing that. There is an entire world of chemistry which can go on. And in the enzymes for which we know the structure and function, there are a huge number in which we still do not know the mechanism. If chemistry was easily predictable, there would be far less for chemists to do!

    Given you know the function of a single enzyme, can you predict how it will interact in a complex biological system with millions of other proteins, organic substances and whatnot?

    There is no room for making the kind of abstractions which are done in the world of computers and engineering. Things are far more complex, and what is worse, they are not self-contained.
  • by hung_himself (774451) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @11:50AM (#9643873)
    Genetics is neither quick nor easy even if you know what you are doing and have lots of time and resources. There is essentially no hope of anything with a complicated set of changes surviving let alone do what you want it to do. That's why modifications are basically one gene at time - mostly one mutation at a time.

    The hacker analogy is having a billion lines of disassembled code which you barely understand. Random changes are just going to cause the program to crash. Geneticists basically only know the NOP command (ah those were the days using MACSBUG...). If you know where the branch point for a key subroutine was you might be able to shut it down or have it run another subroutine but that is still very difficult to do without crashing everything. Changing it to do something completely different is very very difficult since you really have no idea what the code does. Add to that the fact that you need a lab and weeks or months to introduce your changes and you can appreciate how far-fetched these fears of amateur bio-hackers are.
  • by bradbury (33372) <Robert@Bradbury.gmail@com> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @12:36PM (#9644412) Homepage
    Actually the last statement is incorrect.

    The common cold is caused by Rhinoviruses which are a member of the family of picornaviridae (RNA viruses). The problem with rhinoviruses is that there are over 100 serotypes (sub-types) of the virus that have evolved over time. You do gain immunity to an individual serotype but you have would have to catch 1 cold a year for 100+ years before you were immune to them all. I can verify this -- I visited Russia a lot over a period of 5+ years. Whenever I went there initially I always got sick. But after several years I was able to go to Russia and return without that occuring. I presume this was because I gradually built up an immunity to all of the rhinovirus serotypes found in Russia but not in the U.S.

    Rhinoviruses do change over time but they do it by recombination (swapping genome fragments) to create new serotypes not by using sloppy replication. It should be kept in mind that viral replication (of non-DNA viruses) involves very simple replication strategy. The viruses do not have at their disposal all of the repair proteins (120+) that are found in mammalian DNA replication & repair. So their genomes will vary somewhat over time -- but not vary *that* significantly because a successful virus wants to make more successful (identical) viruses.

    Influenza (flu) on the other hand is a multi-chromosome virus -- it evolves by swapping chromosomes with influenza coming from other species -- human flu usually varies due to recombination of chromosomes between human, chicken/duck and pig influenza variants (commonly kept in close proximity in China).

    It is only retroviruses (e.g. HIV) that have a really sloppy replication protein and mutate at a very high rate.

    [This is based on my training in microbiology as well as some quick checks in "Fields Virology".]

    Robert
  • by Vagary (21383) <jawarren@gmai l . com> on Thursday July 08, 2004 @12:40PM (#9644461) Journal
    Forget biological WMDs, we have been under attack by chemical WMDs for decades. GMO food is the only reasonable* way to reduce pesticide use, which is actually causing health problems right now, as opposed to the vague danger of GMOs. Ingestion of weird DNA does nothing but entertain your stomach acids, so the only potential health threat is that GMOs may produce weird chemicals -- but surely they won't be as bad as the franken-pollutents in our environment right now!

    * I'd like to believe the claims that organic food can feed the world, but it's an extraordinary claim and I have yet to see even weak evidence.
  • by James Turpin (789479) on Thursday July 08, 2004 @07:06PM (#9648467)
    There are really 2 separate issues here:

    (1) People doing legitimate research that lead to benneficial treatments with unexpected side-effects. This happens already in medicine all the time. It's nothing new. The real problem here is that some of this stuff ends up becoming food, not medicine. It should be held to higher standard, because risky food is just not acceptable the way risky medicine is acceptable. But in many countries, such as the USA, its not held to a higher standard than drugs.

    (2) Evil mad scientists. Sure, somebody with expertise and resources could manufacture something pretty scary stuff in their spare time. Somebody could do gene splicing to make some bacteria or virus manufacture a toxin or narcotic that is typically only made by plants. Walla, you now have the means to convert sugar into THC. Or somebody could grow viruses in a culture of human cells (say, blood), then subject the viruses to oxygen. Repeat until you have viruses that survive in open air and thrive in the human body. Walla, air-born AIDS.

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