Biosecurity and the next generation of scientists
What does it take to keep over a hundred 18 to 21 year olds, all away from home, in a lecture theatre after dark on a Saturday, 31 October (Halloween)? Apparently, the answer is a discussion on the potential for the malicious application of the life sciences. The event, which was organized by the U.S. State Department, the F.B.I. and the U.N.’s Office for Disarmament Affairs Biological Weapons Convention Implementation Support Unit (ISU), has been taking place annually at the International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition (iGEM).
These sessions are ground breaking for all involved: for the young scientists, it was an introduction to the work of the disarmament and security community, and for the organizations involved, it was a step outside of the environments and practitioners with which they are usually associated.
iGEM is the world’s first undergraduate synthetic biology competition. The student teams are given a kit of standardized biological parts at the beginning of the summer. They work at their own schools, using these parts (and new parts they create) to build biological systems and operate them in living cells. Their projects are then entered into a series of regional competitions (currently for the Americas, Europe and Asia) where they present their work, compete for medals and prizes and have a great deal of fun. The best projects from each of the regions then compete at the World Championships, traditionally held at MIT in the USA (where the competition began).
What the teams can accomplish is nothing short of astounding. Past winners, for example, have developed a new, more efficient approach to bioproduction (Slovenia 2010), improved the design and construction of biosensors (Cambridge 2009), created a prototype designer vaccine (Slovenia 2008), made considerable progress towards a self-differentiated bacterial assembly line (Peking 2007), and re-engineered human cells to combat sepsis (Slovenia 2006).
While such cutting edge biology can bring great benefits (both in terms of how the life sciences are done and how they applied) there is also the possibility to be used to cause deliberate harm. It is important to sensitize this next generation of scientists to the fact that their work could be misused by others, empowering them to be able to act in such cases, to raise awareness that efforts to acquire and use biological weapons have a long and well-documented history, and to raise awareness of the various national and international laws and regulations that cover their work.
The Office for Disarmament Affairs Biological Weapons Convention Implementation Support Unit has been using both traditional outreach strategies (such making presentations where scientists gather) and more unusual approaches to further these aims. Last year the ISU helped to establish a more rigorous safety and security element to the competition. All teams are now required to answer a series of questions that demonstrate how they have addressed potential safety and security issues. Members of the ISU are closely involved with reviewing the answers and have also participated as human practices judges at the iGEM jamborees. This year, the ISU will be judging at the regional competition in Hong Kong in October and at the World Championships in November.
The ISU’s experiences with iGEM have taken place in unusual locations, on topics alien to arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament. While this has posed some challenges, it is also brought great insights and rewards.
For more information on the 2011 iGEM competition and UNODA’s BWC/ISU, see the following weblinks: