Michael Crichton's vision of a nanotech calamity won't frighten many scientists who work in this young and underdeveloped field. But by mixing genetic engineering into his brew, Crichton hits a nerve. Refined anthrax spores have already been used as weapons. Terrorist groups may well have access to smallpox. And with today's biotech tools, they could reengineer these and other microbes, unleashing pests that kill in unexpected ways and are resistant to most drugs.
The threat of novel bioweapons has prompted a painful debate among American scientists: Should researchers censor themselves to stanch the flow of potentially dangerous information? The answer is probably yes, but there are at least three challenges. The pathogens--other than smallpox--are found everywhere in nature. Biotech expertise is also widely distributed around the globe, so self-censorship in one country may not prevent terrorists from obtaining knowledge and materials elsewhere. And there is a cost if scientists stop pooling their discoveries about killer pathogens. "By understanding what makes them deadly, we can protect people. That's what biomedicine is all about," says Ronald M. Atlas, co-director of the Center for the Deterrence of Biowarfare & Bioterrorism at the University of Louisville.
There is no easy solution. Still, the research community is taking action. In October, the National Academy of Sciences issued a statement encouraging members to think about what kinds of previously unclassified research should be restricted. Articles submitted for publication by the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) are now reviewed and could be rejected if the information contained poses a threat. In January, the National Academy of Sciences plans to open high-level debate on the whole topic. One proposal: Classify a narrowly defined set of information--throw it, in effect, into a black box. What goes in? "Clearly, a cookbook for bioweapons," says Atlas, who heads the ASM. Beyond that, he acknowledges, it's a slippery slope.
By Heather Green