Slashdot is powered by your submissions, so send in your scoop

 



Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Medicine Your Rights Online

DNA Sequence Withheld From New Botulism Paper 182

Posted by timothy
from the keep-your-genes-zipped dept.
New submitter rex.clts writes "In the IT security world, it is common practice to withhold specifics when announcing a newly discovered software vulnerability. The exact details regarding a buffer overflow or race condition are typically kept secret until a patch is available, to slow the proliferation of exploits against the hole. For the first time, this practice has been extended to medical publishing. A new form of Botulism has been identified, but its DNA sequence (the genetic code that makes up the toxin) has been withheld, until an antidote has been found. It seems that censorship in the name of "security" is spreading (with DHS involved this comes as no surprise.) Is this the right move?"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

DNA Sequence Withheld From New Botulism Paper

Comments Filter:
  • by Anonymous Coward

    When has with holding information 'ever' been the right move?

    • Hypocrite. (Score:5, Funny)

      by TheMiddleRoad (1153113) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @01:36AM (#45172967)

      "When has with holding information 'ever' been the right move?"

      Says the anonymous coward.

      How small is your penis and what are your email and password?

      • All your sequence are belong to us!
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Ultra64 (318705)

        Right, cause "TheMiddleRoad" is the name your parents gave you.

    • by YttriumOxide (837412) <yttriumox&gmail,com> on Saturday October 19, 2013 @01:36AM (#45172969) Homepage Journal

      When has with holding information 'ever' been the right move?

      That depends on the kind of withholding, the period of it and the type of information. I withhold information from the public such as my bank card's PIN, my password, and so on.

      I think it's at the very least an arguable case as to whether these researchers should withhold this. By releasing it, there would be a non-zero danger that it would be used for harm with little to no positive gain. The exact value of this non-zero danger vs the value of the positive gain is what they likely thought about before making the decision.

      Whether you agree or disagree with their decision, surely you must see the merit in this kind of evaluation?

      • by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @02:30AM (#45173137)

        By releasing it, there would be a non-zero danger that it would be used for harm with little to no positive gain.

        If it isn't public that severely limits the number of people who can work on finding an antidote. Even if they are making the information available to "qualified professionals" it still substantially increases the barrier to finding a fix. Hell, for all we know, someone else has already seen the same strain and been working on a cure but they only speak chinese and this extra friction to figuring out if they even have the same strain is enough to keep the two groups from collaborating.

        Whether you agree or disagree with their decision, surely you must see the merit in this kind of evaluation?

        When the day comes that we start seeing terrorists attacking people with obscure scientific journal data instead of simple bombs then the question might be a reasonable one to ask. Until then the question itself is hype and paranoia.

        • by odie5533 (989896) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @03:46AM (#45173299)
          It's basically no barrier. If you want to research the strain, you're going to need a sample anyways so you're going to have to correspond with the researchers in some way to get the code and the sample.
        • by mysidia (191772) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @04:51AM (#45173427)

          If it isn't public that severely limits the number of people who can work on finding an antidote. Even if they are making the information available to "qualified professionals" it still substantially increases the barrier to finding a fix.

          Perhaps this is the intent behind witholding the sequence. They want to give themselves an advantage in finding the antidote, while still publishing their research.

          By witholding the sequence, which they have learned ---- they can use it to give themselves a competitive advantage towards also being the first to find the antidote: while the other researchers have to work blindly, with no genetic code to assist them in finding/isolating the new strain or work on identifying an antidote.

      • The whole Colistidia family is of pretty intensely studied both C botulinus and C diff present significant medical hazards C botulinus is also intensity studied due to the potential bio weapon use. C abc has long been commercially to produce organic solvents like acetone and presently to ferment the bio fuel butanol.

        Withholding the sequence will just slow down amateurs.

        • by Vesvvi (1501135)

          No, it will slow down professionals as well.

          Without the sequence, what can you do? It's pretty much guaranteed that the new strain produces a toxin with extremely high sequence homology to existing strains, so you know that to make the new toxin you just have to add/delete/exchange a few amino acids, or maybe add an insertion.

          But there is no way to know or guess what should be altered. There are ways to create libraries of mutants, but then they will need to be screened, and that will not be a fast, simpl

          • by fatphil (181876)
            Yes, but at least you now know there's something worth striving for - a real target!
    • by cshark (673578) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @01:54AM (#45173045)

      The only outcome of censorship, logically, is less of whatever it is you are trying to censor. So yes, if the objective is more science, and you would hope it would be, then you do not want the government interfering with it.

      • by brit74 (831798)

        The only outcome of censorship, logically, is less of whatever it is you are trying to censor.

        Less Botulism? Sound good!

        So yes, if the objective is more science, and you would hope it would be, then you do not want the government interfering with it.

        Ohhhh, you meant less science. Seriously, though, Science isn't the only variable we're concerned about here. You need to think about the idea that one discovery can affect multiple variables in society (not just the one called "science"). It isn't hard to think of ways that stuff can be abused. In general, we've tried to keep other weapon technology under wraps, as well.

        Your way of thinking about these issues seems oversimplistic.

    • Right move (Score:2, Insightful)

      by golodh (893453)
      The first question: "when was it ever proper to suppress information" is an easy one to answer.

      Ever since the potential damage of releasing information outweighed the potential utility of releasing said information it has been right and proper to keep information under wraps.

      Now how about this case?

      As the article states, botulism toxin is the most potent toxin we know (as in smallest lethal dose), and what researchers found was a new variant of it to which there is no antidote as of yet.

      With the DNA

      • Re: Right move (Score:4, Insightful)

        by O('_')O_Bush (1162487) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @07:46AM (#45173811)
        Al Queda (boogeymen) could do this with normal botulism and still be effective if what you were stating was practical or if they had any idea how.

        Major cities don't keep botulism antidote stockpiles large enough for their entire city nearby, and it stands to reason that if an attack was so trivial, they'd hit many targets at once like they did with airplanes.

        That is, withholding or not, we'd be screwed. And there are far more effective ways to cause harm than this if they started being bioterrorists (like reengineering the Spanish Flu from selectively breeding one of several strainst of zoonotic flu floating around).

        No, this information was withheld to give the originating scientists lots of time to make more discoveries and papers without competition from peers.
      • Re:Right move (Score:4, Informative)

        by cusco (717999) <brian...bixby@@@gmail...com> on Saturday October 19, 2013 @09:21AM (#45174221)

        With the DNA sequence published, anyone with a simple bacteriological lab can produce it.

        Not at all. You would need a lab capable of building genes and inserting them into an organism, and there are only a few of those on the entire planet (most of them governmental). If you want to selectively breed the microbe for increased toxicity you can do that in your garage right now and the DNA sequence would be minimal if any help.

    • by brit74 (831798)

      When has with holding information 'ever' been the right move?

      Ever heard of World War 2?

    • by westlake (615356)

      When has with holding information 'ever' been the right move?

      In a perfect world there would be no need for keeping secrets.

      In a perfect world a software patch would fix everything when all hell breaks loose.

      But it is not a perfect world --- and the geek doesn't have a real solution for every problem, all he has is a meme.

  • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @01:31AM (#45172949)
    Considering that there is no antidote for regular botulism, my guess is that this "censorship" is doomed to failure.

    Unlike software patches, which may take days or weeks, it looks like it could be years for this. While I'm not a big supporter of giving ammunition to terrorists (just for example), I doubt very much this secrecy will get very far. It usually doesn't. So it looks like a false sense of security ("security theater") to me.
    • There is botulism antitoxin to the previously known forms of botulism. In an acute accident of intentional exposure it can be administered to prevent the action of the toxin. So in a research facility that works with botulism for instance, acute exposure can be treated with the antitoxin. Also there has been a great deal of work carried out to develop vaccines to the other forms of botulism.

      • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @01:53AM (#45173041)

        "There is botulism antitoxin to the previously known forms of botulism."

        According to Wikipedia, it isn't much of an antitoxin. The best it does is prevent the condition from worsening... it is very far from an "antidote".

        • by sugar and acid (88555) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @02:10AM (#45173099)

          That is because of the action of botulism toxin is close to irreversible, taking months for the body to repair the damage to toxin does to the nervous system. It is why Botox (actually stands for botulism toxin, it's just really watered down to make it safe) has a "semipermanent" action of many months.

          The antitoxin does prevent further damage and halts the action of the toxin. Which could be the differences between loss of function of an arm for many months, or respiratory failure. The antitoxin works as well as it could be expected.

          There is a vaccine against the toxin itself. This is given to people at high-risk of being exposed to the toxin (researchers, personnel trained to deal with potential bioweapons attack). It probably isn't effective against this new toxin type.

          • I understand all this, but it's kind of beside the point.

            My original statement was that I felt it would be a long time before they officially reveal this "secret" if they're waiting for an "antidote" for this strain of botulism, as OP claimed, because there simply isn't one for currently known strains.

            And I don't trust that it will actually remain "secret" for that long. It will be leaked, and if anybody is inclined to do nasty things with it, they will anyway.

            Happens all the time with such "secret
    • by PSVMOrnot (885854) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @04:34AM (#45173389)

      You realize this is about the paper. There is nothing to stop his colleagues - who he happens to know have a suitable lab and skills - from calling up and asking for the info. This just lets him choose who gets this dangerous piece of knowledge

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        You realize this is about the paper. There is nothing to stop his colleagues - who he happens to know have a suitable lab and skills - from calling up and asking for the info. This just lets him choose who gets this dangerous piece of knowledge

        In turn, there is nothing stopping him from disallowing information to anyone he does not like. How can we know he is not a fraud? Maybe he is only giving access to people that wont rat him out or can't understand a honeypot of nonsense data.

        This is not science. There is no peer review. This is faith. I am AC! I am the president! For national security reasons I will only allow people I want to confirm my real identity to confirm my real identity. As for the rest of you, just trust me because I am the presid

    • by pesho (843750)
      You are making a good point. The antidote would be a neutralizing antibody. The authors of the paper already tried to make one, but it doesn't seem to work very well. So it may not be a trivial task. Even if they had a good antibody it will take years to do safety trials and scale up production. And here comes the kicker, there is absolutely no incentive to actually produce an antidote. We are dealing with a rare offshoot of a condition that itself is very rare, especially in the western world. There is no
    • Rather than security theater, I'm going with overabundance of caution. Someone who wants to discover new ways of killing people knows a target exists, but that is hardly helpful. Knowing whether you are getting closer to the goal is very helpful.
      Also, my first thought on reading this was "She forgot the attachment. Why send an email without attachment unless censorship? We will never see what was in that attachment."
      Every rebuttal applies equally to this situation, including "I really don't care what was in

  • Terrists (Score:4, Funny)

    by game kid (805301) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @01:32AM (#45172953) Homepage

    Good call! Wouldn't want those highly advanced scientists at al-Qaeda to reproduce it at the gene level or anything.

    • by sumdumass (711423)

      Yes, because the common ideal that [spiked-online.com] Al Qaeda is a bunch of impoverished religious extremist is so inaccurate.

      I couldn't tell if you were being sarcastic or not, but it is true that a lot of terrorist are well educated.

    • by rve (4436)

      What, do you mean that there's more to it than just typing over the DNA sequence from a paper and printing the offending protein out on the protein printer?

      • by Sabriel (134364)

        How close are we to that, anyway?

        • We're there [nih.gov], but it's not cheap and there are a lot of limitations. The shapes of the ribosome and its buddies are important for correct folding in many proteins.
          • by Vesvvi (1501135)

            Sorry, that reference doesn't mean what you think it means. GP wants to know what it takes to go from arbitrary data to protein. The Science paper you linked describes what it takes (more than a decade ago) to take existing proteins and deposit them in an organized pattern onto a surface, which is a completely different topic.

            I am not current on the data->protein problem, but to the best of my knowledge the current state of the art, at scale, is to engineer an organism to do it for you. All of the vit

            • Argh, you're right. I did look at a bunch of cell-free protein production references, but threw them out when I found that one. Nucleotide microarrays are often printed one base at a time in layers, so I assumed it was an analogous process.
      • Making weapons grade botulinus toxin is more about purification and concentration than it is about acquiring the raw materials. Killing a few people by accident is rather easy, killing twenty or thirty on purpose is quite difficult.

    • any tactic that depends upon your enemy being stupid is doomed to backfire

  • by edelbrp (62429) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @02:23AM (#45173121)

    How is this different than a software vulnerability and security through obscurity, etc.?

    I think to begin with, most software vulnerabilities aren't exploited to cause immediate death of (most likely) innocents. There's also no 'fix' for this (e.g. no software update to everybody's genome, but maybe a vaccine can be developed).

    Similar to some other horrible chem/bio/nuke weapon formulas, yes, it should be properly redacted.

  • Ignorance (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Optimal Cynic (2886377) on Saturday October 19, 2013 @04:33AM (#45173387)

    So much ignorance here! Here's a working scientist's opinion:

    http://pipeline.corante.com/archives/2013/10/16/holding_back_experimental_details_with_reason.php [corante.com]

    And Derek Lowe is about as libertarian as scientists get.

    • by Khyber (864651)

      "Until an antitoxin is available, the sequence of this new neurotoxin will not be published,"

      So we're going to keep this secret so we can capitalize on it for patent purposes.

      "Those studying botulin toxins need to know about this discovery, but given the molecular biology tools available to people, publishing the sequence (or making samples of the organism available) would be asking for potentially major trouble."

      GIVE ME A FUCKING BREAK. The people that could actually do anything about this have the equipme

  • Its DNA sequence has been withheld, until an antidote has been found. [...] Is this the right move?

    We arrive at the same question as with security and open source software: if the DNA sequence is withheld, doesn't that reduce the probability of an antidote being discovered?

    • No, because any qualified lab can get the sequence by asking. This isn't like software where anyone can have a crack at it, this needs serious levels of equipment and expertise.
    • by mark-t (151149)
      If one believes that human lives have no more inherent value or importance than computers or computer software, I suppose you may have a point
  • Maybe they don't want the gene sequence patented by some outside party which could make tests and vaccines harder to access. Prior art wasn't worth shit before, and it's not worth half a shit under the new explicit first-to-file system.

  • Missing critical information? Can't reproduce results? Toss it the fuck away. This will teach them to not be in bed with the government.

Mr. Cole's Axiom: The sum of the intelligence on the planet is a constant; the population is growing.

Working...