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Steve Maurer To Steve Maurer, director of the Information Technology and Homeland Security Project, "the great intellectual stumbling block" is a lack of data. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Goldman School portal takes the worry out of 'experiments of concern'

New site aims to warn synthetic biologists when the fruits of their research could include biosecurity risks

| 02 April 2009

Scientists call them "experiments of concern" research projects designed to advance human knowledge or cure disease, but with potentially lethal applications should the results fall into in the wrong hands. The burgeoning field of synthetic biology, which aims for nothing less than to chemically engineer new forms of microbial life (or replicate existing ones), poses special risks.

Yet just how concerned we need be about such experiments is an open question. Now Steve Maurer, director of the Information Technology and Homeland Security Project at the Goldman School of Public Policy, is about to launch an online advice portal he hopes will not only provide some answers, but will also represent a significant step toward mitigating the dangers whatever they might be of well-intentioned synthetic-biology research.

The Berkeley-based website, created under the technical supervision of Goldman IT manager Jason Christopher, aims to give researchers a terrorist's-eye view of the possible weaponry applications of their work before they begin an experiment, much less try to publish their findings. Maurer has lined up a stable of some two dozen volunteer reviewers including security experts from academia, D.C. think tanks, and national laboratories who will form rotating three-person panels to weigh in on the wisdom of moving ahead with a given project.

Although the advice won't be binding, Maurer hopes the existence of the portal along with a new virulent-gene database, VIREP, he and Christopher are working to create will give the synthetic-biology community a meaningful way to regulate its own behavior.

Maurer, a Harvard-trained litigator turned academic, has spent the past several years studying the WMD literature and consulting extensively with people associated with synthetic biology from university researchers (including here at Berkeley) to commercial suppliers of synthetic genetic materials to get a better handle on the dangers their work may present, and what to do about it.

"People in this business always say either that it's trivially easy to make these weapons, or it's impossible," he says. "I'm a public-policy person. I don't want to prejudge that this is a large problem, a small problem  it's not a zero problem."

In recent years, researchers have reported some success in assembling copies of poliovirus and the Spanish influenza virus a particularly virulent strain that killed tens of millions of people in a worldwide 1918-19 epidemic from synthetic materials. Those experiments, however extraordinary, helped to move the threat out of the realm of abstraction.

Adding to fears of unintended consequences is the fact that scientists typically lack expertise in bioterrorism, as do most universities. The new site will provide a critical link between researchers, on the one hand, and impartial scientists and weapons experts from around the world. The experts will assess the proposed project and be available for online consultations, resulting in "sanity checks" for experiments before they ever get off the ground.

And, Maurer hopes, the portal will help the synthetic-biology community get its arms around a nebulous, little-understood area in a way that addresses scientific and security concerns, while at the same time satisfying the intellectual concerns of non-scientists in the public-policy arena.

"Nobody knows much about the 'experiment of concern' problem," explains Maurer, who also teaches at Berkeley Law and has published widely on such topics as database policy, intellectual property, academic-industry relations, and open-source biology. "So one way or the other, we need to throw data at this. In that sense, you can think of the portal as a honeypot for attracting real-world experiments of concern."

The project, says Maurer, is about "reinforcing the norm that has always existed in science, and in synthetic biology, that you should get a sanity check before you do something that you're worried about.  It's not any good to have a norm and not have a way for it to be fulfilled."

Noting that an Arizona jurist will serve as a "fly on the wall" to push reviewers to make their opinions clear and crisp, he adds: "This is a very legal process. It frequently happens in the law that you don't know in advance exactly what the problem is, let alone what principles should be used to decide all these cases.

"The faith of a common-law lawyer, basically, is that these principles will emerge. And the way you do this is you look at real cases in the real world, you do the best analysis you can, and then you write down your best opinion. After five or six opinions the themes start to repeat, and you notice patterns. And that's where general rules come from."

'No guarantees in this business'

The seeds of the project were planted in 2005, when the Goldman School established a new initiative on homeland security. Maurer and his colleagues were soon in talks with the Carnegie Foundation, which shared their interest in biosecurity and is now, with the MacArthur Foundation, one of the portal's key backers.

"We said to them, 'Look, since Sept. 11 everybody in synthetic biology a big new advanced discipline at Berkeley has been talking about, Gee, could this science be misused, and is there anything that the government or the community or somebody should do to manage the risk?' "

The next step, Maurer continues, "was to go around the community and see what ideas were floating around, had been developed in the last few years, which ones appeared to have broad support, and which ones, from a public-policy standpoint, appeared to have some feasibility and were worth doing."

The portal is one of "a suite of initiatives" that emerged from discussions with synthetic-biology researchers worldwide including Berkeley's Jay Keasling, a pioneer in the field who developed a cheap, synthetic version of a potent malaria treatment and is now working to chemically engineer biofuels in the lab and at conferences both here and abroad. Another is VIREP, a state-of-the-art bioinformatics database intended to aid gene-synthesis companies in their efforts to keep short DNA sequences, or "oligos," away from all but legitimate researchers.

The technological challenge of VIREP, explains Christopher, is to create a site where commercial suppliers of genetic material can share and preserve information about suspicious genes information that's typically discarded after a company, prompted by a request from a researcher, searches the scientific literature so that genetically engineered threats can be nipped in the bud. He traveled with Maurer last year to Munich to present the concept to an industry group, and is in talks with software developers.

Efforts to keep synthetic-biology research from being weaponized are themselves experimental, Maurer stresses, and don't readily lend themselves to government regulation. "It's very important to grasp this nettle and do it," he says. "We'll put down the best effort we can, and if other people do it better and they surely will, because they will have seen what we did that's great.

"My best outcome," he adds, "is that the government can take it away from me eventually."

Meanwhile, he notes that however tempting terrorists might find the idea of designer pathogens and toxins, building weapons of mass destruction in a lab is harder than it sounds.

"I can't give you a no-go theorem," he admits, observing that Manhattan Project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer "years ago said there's no physics proof that you can't make the atomic bomb in your bathtub." On the other hand, "it is not at all obvious" that even a group like al Qaeda, with an annual budget estimated at $30 million, could muster the kind of resources likely to be needed for successful genetic engineering.

Synthetic biology is "a large-scale industrial undertaking," Maurer says. "As far as I know, all forms of WMD are. That's reassuring, but it's an accident. There's nothing in the laws of physics, as Oppenheimer told us, that guarantees that the next WMD idea might not be incredibly easy. It is not wired into the deep nature of the cosmos that's it's hard for us to kill each other. So there are no guarantees in this business."

What there is, he insists, is trial and error, and a good-faith desire on the part of synthetic biologists themselves to "improve security at the community level."

For Maurer, the academy and Berkeley in particular is the ideal place to suss out solutions to the "very messy" problems raised by synthetic-biology research. Through virtual "honeypots" and data banks like the portal and VIREP, he explains, "you engage all the expertise that's out in the society, and you have a better chance of reaching the right answer."

"The great intellectual stumbling block about experiments of concern and our ability to deal with them is data," Maurer says. "You need data to think about this. You can't do the Aristotelian fallacy, where you just pull down the shades and exercise pure reason.

"Humans aren't smart enough for that," he adds. "We need clues."