The writer is author of ‘Chip War’
When the US last week added several units of BGI Group, a Chinese genetic sequencing firm, to its entity list restricting technology transfer, the primary justification was that the company had been “contributing to monitoring and surveillance”, including of ethnic minorities. Yet the human rights implications of China’s domestic surveillance state aren’t Washington’s only concern. The new regulations also state that BGI’s programmes of “collection and analysis of genetic data [present] a significant risk of diversion to China’s military”.
Biotechnology has quietly become America’s newest national security concern. From Congress to the intelligence agencies, Washington’s leaders have concluded that control over biotechnologies will be critical not only to the country’s health, but to national security as well.
Biotech tools have made rapid advances of late, enabling new therapies, vaccines, manufacturing techniques — and biosecurity risks. It’s long been recognised that DNA is just a complex type of code, telling cells how to operate. Gene-editing technologies have become more precise and vastly cheaper, making it easier than ever to “reprogramme” organisms. In addition, more powerful computing capabilities have provided new clarity into the meaning of DNA’s “code”.
One use of these capabilities is for manufacturing. For centuries, humans have relied on micro-organisms to produce beer and yoghurt, but with the right reprogramming, bacteria can be made to produce many new types of chemicals. In 2010, Darpa, the Pentagon’s long-range R&D arm, launched a programme called Living Foundries, aiming to synthetically manufacture 1,000 molecules.
While there are many potential civilian uses of biomanufacturing, the US military has been a critical early investor. Living Foundries, for example, has already produced new fuels for missiles, which can be more perfectly tuned to the needs of missile engines than traditional fuel refining allows. The supply chain is simpler, too, with yeast (which manufactures the fuel) and sugar (which feeds the yeast) the two main ingredients. Darpa-backed researchers have also used microbes to produce antibiotics, pesticides, detergents, drug ingredients and liquid crystals.
A key driver of these advances is the application of massive volumes of computing power to DNA. Guess-and-check was a slow research method; deep-learning systems like Google’s Deep Mind are far faster, as the company’s AlphaFold protein-structure prediction tool demonstrates. Because of this, access to genetic data will be a critical resource. BGI, the Beijing-based firm, has gathered a vast trove of data, using products like prenatal tests and Covid-19 swabs, which are sold globally, to hoover up genetic data.
Aggregating genetic data is no bad thing. Progress depends on our ability to identify patterns in large data sets. The US is also trying to develop its own biodata infrastructure, though privacy concerns make this complicated.
The question of who first gleans and deploys lessons from genetic data matters, however. Technological advances are ethically and politically neutral; everything depends on how and by whom they are wielded. As one Darpa director warned a decade ago, these techniques will eventually be used not only to create life-saving therapies and new materials, but also to “engineer micro-organisms to do bad things”.
Countries have engaged in biological warfare research for many decades, though thankfully we have avoided large-scale use of biological weapons thus far. Synthetic biology techniques probably increase this risk by driving down costs and improving targeting capabilities. The same technologies that will enable increasingly personalised medicine raise the risk of personalised pathogens, too. Worryingly, a recent report from the US National Academies concluded that weapons targeted towards a specific group’s genome were not “technically feasible yet” but “will require continual monitoring”.
That’s one reason why in last year’s defence budget legislation, the US Congress set up a National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology. Several influential, tech-savvy legislators have been appointed to the commission. Meanwhile, the Biden administration last year released its own plan for creating a “sustainable, safe, and secure” bioeconomy, while commissioning new studies of security risks and the biomanufacturing supply chain. From the state department to intelligence agencies, Washington’s bureaucracy is bulking up on biotech expertise to prepare for when the new national security worry becomes a reality.