Lab Fight Raises U.S. Security Issues

by jeeg 28. October 2011 19:45

Synthetic biology — which includes the development of fuels, organ tissue and tumor-destroying bacteria — became a focus of government and law enforcement agencies after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that quickly followed it. The field’s “extraordinary promise,” a presidential commission concluded in December, is accompanied by “potential risks” to humans and the environment.

Even worse, it is possible that such designer organisms could fall into the hands of a “deranged individual or terrorist, who could create and release a deadly virus, said Richard H. Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University. The potential for such a chain of events has cast a pall over the discipline, he said.

A dispute at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, a prominent coalition of biology labs that is led by the University of California, Berkeley, illustrates the potentially dangerous consequences of the research. At the heart of the controversy is a biosafety expert who resigned last summer amid complaints that the coalition was not doing enough to prevent a biological disaster.

The expert, Paul M. Rabinow, an anthropology professor at Berkeley, was hired to evaluate the security and ethical ramifications of the center’s research and report his findings to the top administrators. (The National Science Foundation, which granted about $23.3 million to SynBERC, has required the coalition to include research focused on the ethical, security and social aspects of its work.)

The disagreement at the center — which is known as SynBERC — came to a head over the creation and application of security and disaster-preparedness guidelines.

In internal memorandums, published papers and private conversations with Jay Keasling, SynBERC’s director, Dr. Rabinow said that he outlined practical methods to improve security and preparedness, but that his recommendations were largely ignored.

In March 2010, the National Science Foundation reported that some parts of SynBERC’s research on security and risk “appear to be primarily observational in nature rather than proactive and developmental.” The foundation appeared to place some of the blame on Dr. Rabinow, who was paid about $723,000 over five years, and said that “a change in leadership will be necessary to facilitate significant progress.”

Six months after that recommendation, Dr. Rabinow was replaced by Drew Endy, SynBERC’s strategic director and an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford. Dr. Rabinow stayed on at SynBERC as a researcher until July, when he resigned. Three of his doctoral students also left their research positions at SynBERC.

Dr. Rabinow said in an interview that he resigned because he was fed up with what he described as SynBERC’s scientists’ indifference toward their “responsibility to larger society, which is funding them, by entrusting them to manipulate life.” The center includes scientists from the University of California, San Francisco; Stanford; Harvard; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Prairie View A&M University in Texas.

“It had begun to worry me how profoundly irresponsible these guys are,” Dr. Rabinow said. “There are possibilities of all kinds of nefarious things happening. There is no reason that someone couldn’t modify a virus; you could release it on an airplane or subway, and it could have profound terror effects.”

Dr. Keasling disputed the account of Dr. Rabinow, who he said had failed to do his job.

“Paul failed in two realms: actively communicating what he wanted to do and actively carrying them out,” said Dr. Keasling, a professor in the chemical engineering and bioengineering departments at Berkeley and the chief executive of the United States Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, which is devoted to biofuel research. “It became clear over time that he wasn’t going to do the job.”

Kevin Costa, SynBERC’s administrative director, said officials wanted to implement security proposals but lacked the leadership to do so.

“We were always interested in doing those things, but there wasn’t a champion to step up — whether it be Jay Keasling or Paul Rabinow — and lead those projects,” Mr. Costa said. “I think the bioscientists were looking to Paul to lead the way, and he was waiting for the bioscientists to show more enthusiasm.”

Mr. Costa said Dr. Rabinow never produced a practical handbook written in a way that the project’s scientists or industry partners could understand. Further, Mr. Costa said, private companies participating in the project had asked Dr. Rabinow and his team to provide practical advice on how to communicate with the public in case of a disaster — which, Mr. Costa said, never materialized.

Dr. Rabinow previously held a fellowship from the National Science Foundation to study molecular biology. He also has served as a visiting professor at the London School of Economics.

He said one crucial area of concern was that SynBERC scientists possessed the technology to determine which DNA sequences are needed to modify genes and create novel functions. These sequences are stored in public databases and can be generated by private companies or academic facilities that synthesize genes.

Federal laws prohibit the transfer of toxins and pathogenic microorganisms. But Mr. Rabinow is concerned that hackers or rogue scientists could acquire the seemingly benign DNA sequences and build a deadly virus.

“DNA synthesis companies have no way of currently telling, once the sequences are put together, what the result will be,” Dr. Rabinow said. “Somebody could manufacture pathogens that are dangerous to the environment.”

SynBERC’s leaders did not take the threat seriously enough, said Anthony Stavrianakis, one of Mr. Rabinow’s graduate students who also resigned from the center. “Given the spread of know-how, technology, hacking culture, all set within a changing geopolitics, simply asserting that ‘everything is under control,’ ” as SynBERC has, “is not true,” Mr. Stavrianakis wrote in an e-mail.

SynBERC says that the DNA and proteins used in its research are the same as those used in biological studies since the 1970s and do not pose a new biological or chemical threat.

Dr. Keasling also said that synthetic biologists diligently police themselves.

“Yes, there are going to be risks, but we are getting out in front of it,” he said. At the same time, he added, the notion of a terrorist using a company to acquire and customize genetic sequences is “kind of far-fetched.”

Dr. Rabinow said that his work was not difficult to understand and that it was not his responsibility to produce a communication plan for the public. “I can’t be blamed for that,” he said.

Maria Zacharias, a spokeswoman for the National Science Foundation, declined to address specific questions about the disagreement at SynBERC or the underlying reasons for recommending a change in leadership in security. But she said the foundation meets every quarter with SynBERC’s researchers to discuss progress on issues like biosafety and biosecurity.

Jennifer Golan, NY Times 


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