On War #305: The Future is Now

by William S. Lind
19 May 2009

For years, I have warned in these columns and elsewhere that the future weapon of mass destruction we should most fear is not a nuke. Rather, it is a genetically engineered plague, a plague no one has ever seen before and against which no one has any immunity. In the time it would take to identify the new disease, develop a vaccine, distribute the vaccine and have it become effective, modern societies could suffer death rates equivalent to those of the Black Death: up to 2/3 of the population.

Regrettably, it appears that dread future has now arrived. The May 12 Wall Street Journal carried a front-page story titled “In Attics and Closets, ‘Biohackers’ Discover Their Inner Frankenstein.”

In Massachusetts, a young woman makes genetically modified E. coli in a closet she converted into a home lab. A part-time DJ in Berkeley, Calif., works in his attic to cultivate viruses extracted from sewage …

These hobbyists represent a growing strain of geekdom known as biohacking, in which do-it-yourselfers tinker with the building blocks of life in the comfort of their own homes.

Developing nuclear weapons requires vast facilities. Even so significant a country as Iran must strain to its limits to design, build and operate the complex industrial plants required. The costs run in the billions of dollars.

In contrast, the Wall Street Journal writes of the woman in Massachusetts
that

She’s got a DNA “thermocycler” bought on eBay for $59, and an incubator made by combining a Styrofoam box with a heating device meant for an iguana cage.

As usual, the Internet plays the role of Sorcerer’s Apprentice in this unfolding nightmare:

The (biohacking) movement has made big strides recently thanks to the commercial availability of synthetic DNA. This genetic material, normally found inside the nucleus of cells, can now easily be purchased online. That provides any amateur with the ingredients for constructing an organism.

The WSJ reassuringly notes that the government is interested in all this.

The E. coli manipulator got a phone call from a government security contractor:  How did she build that lab? Did she know other people creating new life forms at home?

The woman, a Ms. Aull, says the worries are overblown. DIY biologists are trying to “build a slingshot,” she says, “and there are people out there talking about, oh, no, what happens if they move on to nuclear weapons?”

Well, my dear, the fact is that you and your fellow biohackers have moved on to nuclear weapons. Or, as I fear, something even more dangerous than nuclear weapons. One little “oopsie” in a basement lab could inadvertently unleash a plague.

In their collective hubris, modern people seem to have forgotten what the plague did. It brought down a whole civilization, the Middle Ages. So vast and terrible were its effects that children still sing about it:

Ring around the rosie,
Pocket full of posies,
One, two, three and
We all fall down.

The rosie was a rose-shaped, red blotch, often with a ring around it, that was one of the first symptoms showing a person had caught the plague. The posies were sweet-smelling herbs; people thought breathing through them might ward off the disease. One, two, three and we all fall down – dead.

It’s nice to know the Feds are paying some attention to what is happening here. But what are jihadi biohackers cooking up? What’s brewing in Columbian drug labs? Anything available on the Internet is available everywhere.

A calm, measured, thoughtful response to biohacking would be to run around madly in one’s underwear screaming “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” It is impossible to overstate this threat.

What can we do about it? Probably nothing. Only students of history, who know what the Black Death did to Medieval Europe, will understand what is at stake. Since World War I, and in some ways since the onset of the mis-named Enlightenment, the Modern Age has been folding back on itself, creating self-amplifying feedback loops of ever-greater destructive power. But only Cassandra can see it happening.

One of the few effective defenses the Middle Ages had against the Black Death was immurement: when plague appeared in a household, the house was bricked up, with the inhabitants inside. Some towns saved themselves that way. Should we immure biohackers? Absolutely.

Of course we won’t, nor will we do anything until it is too late. One, two, three and we all fall down.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Direct line: 703 837-0483

Comments are welcome; please observe our comment policy.

Be Sociable, Share!

Filed in Uncategorized | 7 responses so far

7 Responses to “On War #305: The Future is Now”

  1. Grimgrinon 19 May 2009 at 10:35 pm 1

    A few points on this article:

    1) Snopes and Wikipedia both suggest the plague interpretation is a recent invention, rather than the source of the rhyme itself.

    2) Despite the somewhat breathless tone of the WSJ article, <a href = “http://www.linkedin.com/pub/katherine-aull/7/428/b55″Katherine Adull woman with the “closet laboratory”, also has a B.S. in molecular engineering from MIT and is currently working in biotechnology, and the experiment was most likely a faliure. In her own words “I don’t think it works”.

    3) The problem with Cassandra prophecies is that they can contribute to the thing their warning against. We’ve seen this with terrorism, shortly after 9/11 “OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!” was the calm, measured response many people took. When we all failed to die, many people concluded that the threats were overblown and further the threats were never credible in the first place. Those of us who’ve followed the global warming debate have seen this process very well, especially how predictions of disaster that do not materialize are turned into evidence that the threat was never real.

    4) “But what are jihadi biohackers cooking up?” It’s unlikely they’re cooking up anything, or if they do, they’ll wipe out their own communities as an ‘own goal’. Breeding a bacteria with anitbiotic resistance is easy. Breeding a virulent, infectious bacteria, with antibiotic resistance that can be used to selectively attack a population you don’t like is a tasks that’s rather more difficult. And by rather more difficult, I mean ‘a currently unsolved problem’.

    Not to discount the threat, or say it shouldn’t be monitored and dealt with. But it’s hardly apocalyptic.

    5) “What’s brewing in Columbian drug labs?”. At a guess? Better ways to make drugs. Better drugs. Roundup ready coca plants.

    6) A genuine “Calm, measured, response” would be to identify those gene sequences that convey antibiotic and immune resistance, and make their sale and trade controlled the same way we control any dual use technology, Then establishing a proper public health monitoring agency with the resources to impose quarantines in the event of outbreaks.

    I’m probably well over ‘brief’ so I’ll leave it there.

  2. waypasthadenoughon 20 May 2009 at 9:14 am 2

    Ever read “The White Plague” by Frank Herbert?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_White_Plague

    Seems to me any govt. would recognize that with today’s transportation systems the disease would easily be transported back to the home turf.

    Personally I think we’re in more danger of the ‘watchers’ releasing something to thin us out…

  3. JCon 20 May 2009 at 10:52 am 3

    Dear Dr. Lind,

    With all due respect, don’t fall prey to bad science reporting.

    Mainstream printed media is suffering a systemic drop in the quality of their science reporting. I don’t know if it’s due to the economic situation (when things go sour science reporters get fired first) or the backlash of a generalized lack of interest in science among the population.

    The WSJ piece is a clear example of bad science reporting. To the eyes of a scientist, the article belongs to a tabloid. While the facts about anybody being able to grow E. coli and multiply bacteriophages in a closet is more or less accurate, the article over-inflates the reach of the amateurish meanderings of these so-called “bio-hackers”. Any good science reporter would have noticed that the $59 thermocycler (the thing located at the bottom of the closet, an early 1990’s equipment from Perkin Elmer) is certainly useless to generate more than a few hundreds of base pairs of DNA, not even enough to make a decent gene (E. Coli has around 4,000 of them). In a similar manner, there is mention of somebody breeding bacteriophages to make them “survive the high temperatures of the human body”. As I write this, in thousands of real science laboratories around the world, lambda bacteriophages are multiplying like crazy at a whooping 42 Celsius with no problem. The lambda phage was isolated in the 50s, and is mentioned even in high school biology textbooks. There is a company in Baltimore (Intralytix Inc.) that wanted to make a living out of producing bacteriophages to kill bacteria in patients, and after millions of dollars spent they couldn’t and settled for using the bacteriophages just to kill bacteria just in food stocks. Last time I checked they were having problems with even that. The following line in the article “that provides any amateur with the ingredients for constructing an organism” is just outrageous. The reporter should have been aware that one of the leading institutions in that field (J. Craig Venter Institute, in Rockville MD) has been working on that for almost a decade and they only made humble progress.

    I could go on with this, but I don’t want to rant. Why the WSJ reporter would honor these amateurish projects with the front page of a mainstream printed newspaper and then making things worse by saying that these people are hacking organisms is beyond my comprehension.

    I agree with the general idea that the threat of bioterrorism is growing (no pun intended) by the hour. I also agree that making bioweapons is less expensive than making nuclear weapons. But I don’t agree that making bioweapons could ever be as cheap as making an IED. Biotechnology is a skill, time and capital intensive activity.

    All of the above said in the spirit of constructive debate and with upmost respect and admiration. I am a fervent admirer of your work (I even blogged about you and you On War column: http://kriegsimulation.blogspot.com/2009/04/contemporary-military-thinkers-william.html). :)

    Kindest regards,

    JC

  4. Jackdawon 21 May 2009 at 2:20 pm 4

    According to the urban legend debunking site snopes.com, the link between “Ring Around the Rosie” and the Black Death is a myth:
    http://www.snopes.com/language/literary/rosie.asp

  5. SRCon 21 May 2009 at 2:41 pm 5

    Preferring highbrow lit, I’ve read only one Tom Clancy novel, or any novel of its genre; and as fate would have it, it was _Rainbow Six_. (Warning: what follows might be a spoiler!)

    It was entertaining save for the ending, the fate of the bad dudes and dudettes. For anyone who’s read the first chapter of Plato’s _Republic_ knows that justice isn’t doing good things to good people and bad things to bad people. But I digress.

    What the baddies were up to in that novel seemed science fiction then; not so now after what Lind has written above. Speaking of which, Jules Verne’s novel _Paris au XXe siècle_ , written in 1863, predicted air-conditioning, skyscrapers, internal combustion engines, television, something like the Internet, and fax machines. The novel was was rejected by publisher as too incredible, and it wasn’t published until 1994! See also Poe’s short story, “The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainbow_Six_(novel) . (Warning! Spoiler! Indeed, how the author gradually introduces what the evil have planned is half of his skill. Alas, I may be something of a spoiler already. )

    As for the Black Death, we all know George Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Nobody reads ol’ George anymore; everybody’s too busy quoting him). Still, his proverb cant be said enough. A people so ignorant of history as Gringos will pay a high price for such ignorance.

    Call me “chicken little” or “Cassandra”.

  6. GeorgiaBoy61on 21 May 2009 at 5:29 pm 6

    Mr. Lind:

    Thank you for a thought-provoking article, and a disturbing one.
    I have an advanced degree in biochemistry, and have worried for years about the weaponization of micro-organisms. As you note, designing and building an atomic weapon demands huge outlays of capital, advanced technical skills in metallurgy, engineering, materials science, physics, and more. Moreover, one needs fissionable material – access to which is controlled, at least in part. It is also a time-consuming, laborous process to extract the proper isotopes from raw uranium, plutonium or whatever the starting material happens to be.

    In contrast, a fairly sophisticated biological laboratory can be outfitted cheaply and in a space not much larger than a decent-sized basement – one reason there was such concern in Gulf War I about bioweapons in Saddam’s Iraq. Working with the most lethal pathogenic bacteria and viruses demands expensive equipment such as incubators, isolation suits, fume hoods, growth media, sterilizers/autoclaves, specialized building ventilation systems and air filtration, and more – not to mention cultures of the organisms one wishes to manipulate. These have limited access into the field of bio-weapons design. It is also harder than generally assumed to weaponize bacteria, viruses and other organisms. To date, this difficult and very expensive process has been the sole domain of states such as the USSR, USA, the UK, and other advanced nations.

    However, if it becomes feasible to manipulate genes cheaply and without specialized training, and “biohacking” organisms becomes commonplace, it will open a Pandora’s Box which will be difficult to close. Genetic power, as the late author and commentator Dr. Michael Crichton noted, is potentially among the most destructive forces in existence. If this technology and know-how becomes accessible to 4GW entities, then the game may well-and-truly be up.

    We have the internet to thank for this state of affairs. At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, just because you can put the most sensitive and potentially dangerous technical and scientific information on the ‘net does not mean you should do so. The old pen-and-paper world may have been inefficient, even cumbersome, but at least 4th generation actors could not download plans for their latest outrage right from the internet. In those days, access to sensitive materials and knowledge was limited, and thus controlled.

  7. Maxon 22 May 2009 at 10:04 am 7

    “Genetic power, as the late author and commentator Dr. Michael Crichton noted, is potentially among the most destructive forces in existence. If this technology and know-how becomes accessible to 4GW entities, then the game may well-and-truly be up.”

    I see your point, excellent, very well presented.

    A real expert in our humble minst.

    Whereas most here incl. myself are laymen,
    So forgive us.

    However, if so, would not the “game” then be ‘up” for “them”
    as well ?

    Does biological desease, natural, engineered, or a combination thereof, still not propigate and attack indiscrimately ?

    And in a very real sense, is still a lot like nuclear deterence
    and M.A.D. ?

    If you catch my drift ? (pun int)

    Having said that, some madmen want only to see the world burn,
    so to speak.

    Fill us in.
    Respectfully.

    M