The DNA Bomb

Modified Crops are In the Crosshairs Now. You May Be Next.

More realistic, argues Dr. George M. Church, director of the Lipper Center, would be a pathogen that targeted people with shared lifestyle traits. "[T]his could be more effective and less speculative." According to Church, such pathogens could be genetically modified organisms that activate when they encounter sexually transmitted diseases, for example, or drugs, either illicit or prescribed.

The Army of God Manifesto, gospel to anti-abortion extremists, allows chemical and biological weapons in the crusade. Now think of a virus or bacterial spore that attacks in the presence of RU-486.

Dr. Ken Alibek, the former first deputy chief of Biopreparat (the Soviet biological warfare program) and author of the book Biohazard, tempers his skepticism with a sense of wonder over developments like animal cloning and viral gene therapy, inconceivable a few short years ago. "Biotech is so advanced now, I would say practically everything is possible. You would be amazed at the difference between what was possible 20 years ago and now," he says.

With the vision of an H.G. Wells, a criminal mastermind might act today, stealing the combs and drinking glasses used by young up-and-comers for a diabolical gene bank. The villain needn't aim to kill the victims, but could instead steal their sanity. In April, a Johns Hopkins University team reported that some viruses, like herpes, might cause schizophrenia by triggering ancient viral DNA wedged into the human genome.

Nobel laureate geneticist Joshua Lederberg, president emeritus of Rockefeller University, expresses amazement at the progress of science, but also irritation at speculation about where it all might lead. "Use your unbridled imagination, and that's what you can have in the 21st century from genetics," he tells the Voice. "You can go to whatever possible science fiction you want, and it's impossible to prove that it's wrong."


But attacking farms with genetically modified pathogens may not be that many pages away. "Targeting biological weapons to crops seems a real threat," writes Dr. Nierman, of the Institute for Genomic Research.

Organisms designed to kill a species of plant would probably be derived from existing plagues. "A GM pathogen would undoubtedly be a modified version of a known and well-studied plant pathogen," Nierman explains, in an argument echoed by several scientists. "It would be modified to increase its pathogenicity"—its punch—"to targeted crop strains."

Experts identified four forces that could spark a genetic attack on food stocks: war, terrorism, ecological extremism, and agribusiness competition.

Belligerent nations might be tempted to use biological attacks as stand-ins for "ethnic bombs," for years a bogeyman of genetic science. Erasing an entire ethnic group without decimating your own would likely prove impossible, since genetic traits spill across cultures. Crops, on the other hand, are distinct, and can be attacked with stealth—providing an advantage for enemy states or rival agribusinesses. Unless the blight were delivered with an intercontinental missile, the resulting famine might even seem like a natural catastrophe.

That's a negative for terrorists, who exist to draw attention to themselves. The last thing a terrorist group wants is for its destruction to be mistaken for an act of God, notes Neal A. Pollard, founding director of the Terrorism Research Center, Inc. For that reason, explosives will rule for the foreseeable future. "Of course, this is all subject to change once the truck bomb no longer works as a weapon," he says, "or once some terrorist somewhere demonstrates that an exotic weapon like bioengineered pathogens actually can achieve the same publicity and fear as current weapons and tactics."

The U.S. had a brush with that kind of panic this year, delivered in an envelope to a small New York State dairy farm, a source at the Department of Agriculture says. The farmer opened the piece of mail to find a letter, purportedly from a cell of environmental radicals, telling him he'd just unwittingly released foot-and-mouth disease onto his farm. The envelope was flown to the biological research facility on New York's Plum Island, home of the North American stockpile of foot-and-mouth vaccine, where the threat was revealed to be a hoax.

Delivering effective agricultural pathogens abroad wouldn't be that easy. You'd have to create a bug powerful enough to wipe out a broad swathe of farmland, but smart enough to stop at the border. "I'm thinking of something like wheat rust," the White House official says. "Are you going to make an impact by knocking out a few acres in Indiana? Even foot-and-mouth is a perfect example. You can stop it. You can draw the line."

And if you couldn't, the pestilence unleashed on your enemy would spread like wildfire to your allies in the region. As with ethnic bombing, a genetic assault on a strain of crop is unlikely to line up with the political needs of a war. Imagine the result if the U.S. had used a "rice bomb" during the Vietnam War—starvation would have swept over not only the north, but America's allies in the region as well. It's just not a sharp enough tool for governments to covet.

In closer quarters, dietary strictures might provide a genetic shibboleth: You could aim for food on your neighbor's table, but not your own. Think of religious prohibitions on eating cows, pigs, and shellfish. By the logic of Church's "lifestyle targeting," you could wipe those foods out, or secretly transform them into poisons.

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