You cannot make a nuclear bomb in your garage lab, but you can make other things that are equally devastating. If a scientific criminal cannot use physics for his deviousness, there is biology at hand.
Some might remember the 2001 ‘anthrax attacks’ — people received letters laced with anthrax, a killer bacterium; five died and several fell sick, and it was not until years later that the letters were traced to Dr Bruce Ivins, an American microbiologist, who took his life just before he was about to be arrested.
Handling deadly pathogens called for (note the past tense) a large set-up, a lot of money and high levels of technical expertise. Not anymore. Today, we are in an era of do-it-yourself (DIY) and home-made drugs — stuff that can be beneficial and harmful. In the last few years, scientists have been red-flagging these dangers but, by all accounts, nobody is sure how to counter them.
In recent times, scientists have uncorked a genie called ‘synthetic biology’. There is no standard definition of synthetic biology, but it essentially refers to creating organisms that are not found in nature and designed to do a task that we desire.
However, synthetic biology could also mean “re-programming” natural organisms to perform a task or modifying them to have new abilities, in the same way that computers can be re-programmed for specific functions. For example, the chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) technology, where immune cells can be engineered to recognise and attack cancer cells.
Mariam Elgabry of University College London, who has produced quite a few papers on bio-crime, points out that “a traditional biological system could, for example, be modified to behave like a sensor that gets activated and emits a signal in the presence of a toxin or disease signature, which is useful for medical diagnostics or environmental solutions”.
Synthetic biology, often described as the biology equivalent of the internet, has many promising and useful applications. Every country is looking at it seriously. In February, the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, brought out an insightful ‘Foresight Paper’ calling for a policy on synthetic biology. But much like how the internet has engendered cybercrimes, synthetic biology, too, could be misused.
Now, synthetic biology is not exactly new. It has been around as a concept for decades. But scientists are generally agreed that two factors have helped make it rather commonplace.
One is ‘next-generation sequencing’ (NGS), which refers to ultra-quick genome sequencing. According to Illumina, a company that offers NGS services, the technology “is used to determine the order of nucleotides in entire genomes or targeted regions of DNA or RNA”. With NGS, the cost of genome sequencing has come down to a few hundred dollars from thousands earlier — the ‘sub-$100’ milestone is tantalisingly within reach.
The second is the gene editing tool CRISPR, a Nobel Prize winning technology that helps alter a DNA and modify gene functions. This technology has rather democratised genetic engineering. TALEN is another gene editing tool. These genome editing kits “are being made openly available for purchase over the internet”, says a publication of the UK Home Office on ‘Future trends in security’.
Skilled amateurs as well as professional scientists can experiment with gene editing technology.
Says the Government of India’s ‘Foresight Paper’: “Synthetic biology involves large-scale synthesis of DNA which can create new pathogens from scratch, recreate old pathogens, or engineer naturally occurring organisms to become a threat to biosafety. If a sequence coding for a toxin is made available on the Internet and anyone can print the gene or pathogen.”
Add to this deadly concoction yet another poison — cybercrime — and the potential for crime increases by orders of magnitude. Mariam Elgabry et al in a 2020 paper on ‘Criminogenic potential of synthetic biology’, published in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, say: “Synthetic biology integrates a diverse set of technologies to enable various applications that have enormous potential. While these were once restricted to specialised institutions, they are now freely available online through kits, bioinformatics tools and data.”
So, what all can a criminal possibly do? Systematic evidence quantifying the crime opportunities posed by synthetic biology has been limited, says the Elgabry paper, but it divides the universe of criminal activities into eight categories — illegal gene editing, home-made bad drugs, genetic blackmail, neuro-hacking, bio-hacking, bio-discrimination, cyber bio-crime and bio-malware.
Each category can spawn a class of criminals specialising in it. For example, banned psychoactive drugs can be made at home. Earlier, one might have needed, say, a camouflaged agricultural field to grow poppy, but today you only need to understand how the poppy plant makes the psychoactive drug (the biosynthesis pathway). You can mimic the process in a lab. “In the event that a single psychoactive constituent is desired by the consumer and isolation from the native host is costly, total synthesis may be one strategy to establish a robust supply chain,” says a 2021 paper on ‘Biosynthesis and synthetic biology of psychoactive natural products’, by Cooper Jamieson et al.
A blackmailer, for instance, could easily obtain saliva samples of a father and son and do a paternity test; if negative, he could resort to blackmail. A neuro-hacker can manipulate the gut biome of a person and control the person’s brain, because there is a connection between the activities of the bacteria in the gut and the brain.
The unfortunate part is that the world seems ill-equipped to deal with this rising spectre of bio-crime. In a recent paper on ‘The future of biotechnology crime: A parallel Delphi study with non-traditional experts’, Elgabry et al note that “forecasting biotechnology crime trends remains a challenge as future misuses become more sophisticated”.
The Foresight paper recognises the inadequacy of regulatory tools to deal with the emerging situation. “Many of the existing regulatory frameworks were developed in the context of “traditional” fields such as biotechnology and genetic engineering,” it says, adding that these “may have to be revised in order to cope with fresh challenges raised by synthetic biology”.