15 November 2012

Advances in bioweapons

Excerpts from a long, thought-provoking article at The Atlantic:
The U.S. government is surreptitiously collecting the DNA of world leaders, and is reportedly protecting that of Barack Obama. Decoded, these genetic blueprints could provide compromising information. In the not-too-distant future, they may provide something more as well—the basis for the creation of personalized bioweapons that could take down a president and leave no trace.

...consider that the DNA of world leaders is already a subject of intrigue. According to Ronald Kessler, the author of the 2009 book In the President’s Secret Service, Navy stewards gather bedsheets, drinking glasses, and other objects the president has touched—they are later sanitized or destroyed—in an effort to keep would‑be malefactors from obtaining his genetic material. (The Secret Service would neither confirm nor deny this practice, nor would it comment on any other aspect of this article.) And according to a 2010 release of secret cables by WikiLeaks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton directed our embassies to surreptitiously collect DNA samples from foreign heads of state and senior United Nations officials. Clearly, the U.S. sees strategic advantage in knowing the specific biology of world leaders; it would be surprising if other nations didn’t feel the same...

Personalized bioweapons, the focus of this story, are a subtler and less catastrophic threat, and perhaps for that reason, society has barely begun to consider them. Yet once available, they will, we believe, be put into use much more readily than bioweapons of mass destruction. For starters, while most criminals might think twice about mass slaughter, murder is downright commonplace. In the future, politicians, celebrities, leaders of industry—just about anyone, really—could be vulnerable to attack-by-disease. Even if fatal, many such attacks could go undetected, mistaken for death by natural causes; many others would be difficult to pin on a suspect, especially given the passage of time between exposure and the appearance of symptoms...

Presidential DNA could be used in a variety of politically sensitive ways, perhaps to fabricate evidence of an affair, fuel speculation about birthplace and heritage, or identify genetic markers for diseases that could cast doubt on leadership ability and mental acuity. How much would it take to unseat a president? The first signs of Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s may have emerged during his second term. Some doctors today feel the disease was then either latent or too mild to affect his ability to govern. But if information about his condition had been genetically confirmed and made public, would the American people have demanded his resignation? Could Congress have been forced to impeach him?

For the Secret Service, these new vulnerabilities conjure attack scenarios worthy of a Hollywood thriller. Advances in stem-cell research make any living cell transformable into many other cell types, including neurons or heart cells or even in vitro–derived (IVD) “sperm.” Any live cells recovered from a dirty glass or a crumpled napkin could, in theory, be used to manufacture synthetic sperm cells. And so, out of the blue, a president could be confronted by a “former lover” coming forward with DNA evidence of a sexual encounter, like a semen stain on a dress...

...even modern cancer therapies could be harnessed for malicious ends. Personalized therapies designed to attack a specific patient’s cancer cells are already moving into clinical trials. Synthetic biology is poised to expand and accelerate this process by making individualized viral therapies inexpensive. Such “magic bullets” can target cancer cells with precision. But what if these bullets were trained to attack healthy cells instead? Trained against retinal cells, they would produce blindness. Against the hippocampus, a memory wipe may result. And the liver? Death would follow in months.
More at the link.  Fascinating.


  1. Bioweapon "advances" = ethical and moral retrogression.

  2. An unfortunate truism regarding weapons: if we have them, we will use them.

    Also, we all (hippies in the 60s/70s)knew that Reagan was senile, even when he was governor of California. Who in their right mind would say, "Trees cause pollution." or "If you've seen one redwood, you've seen them all."?

  3. Oh man. The Palestinians are gonna love that one. They are already convinced that Arafat was poisoned. They are even digging up his body again to get more tissue samples.



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