The DNA Bomb


This is the doomsday scenario: Assassins seek to take down a world leader, but they won’t need to risk using bullets or bombs. Instead, they stand on a receiving line and shake the leader’s hand, coming away with a genetic sample—a fleck of skin, a stray hair—that reveals his secret vulnerabilities. Then they engineer a pathogen that will attack only the dignitary. The next time he addresses a crowd, one terrorist simply coughs, releasing the pathogen-loaded virus into the air. It circulates silently, a contagion harmless to all but its target. Within hours, the leader is dead.

Perhaps less frightening, though all the more likely, is the threat of attacks against agriculture. Because DNA varies little from person to person, picking out an individual is extraordinarily hard; an entire species of plant, though, is a barn-side target. Ecoterrorists have already begun building arsenals of weeds designed to choke out genetically modified (GM) crops, which are by definition distinct. Scientists have so far laughed these predators off, but the time is coming when an entire variety of corn or rice could be quietly and efficiently destroyed.

Last week, the Bush administration rolled out its initiative against domestic terrorism, but efforts today may prove worthless tomorrow. Though this year’s triumphal publication of the human genome in draft form is expected to catapult medicine to a level that would have seemed miraculous a generation ago, it has also raised questions about whether this plowshare might be beaten into a sword.

“We mapped the human genome for goodness—for medical advances and for saving lives, not for nefarious acts. But anything you do always has a dark side,” notes a Bush administration official who requested that she not be identified. “I’m with a community that sees the bad things in this world; I see all of the intelligence reports produced. Sometimes I think, ‘My God, how could that be used by this adversary or a second nation working with a terrorist organization?’ ”

Departments once thought of as soft, like Agriculture and Health and Human Services, have become vanguard agencies for domestic defense consulted by the National Security Council because of their expertise with food and emerging diseases, she says. The White House official says she’d like to see scientists police themselves better regarding what they publish and with whom they share data. She predicts President Bush will repeat Clinton’s pooh-poohed attempt to include controls and security demands on biological agents in an omnibus crime package.

For now, crafting a genetic bullet that could be carried by many but kill only one isn’t within reach, but neither is it beyond imagining. “I see that prospect as an easy fix for biologicals . . . one that would require money and time, but seems rather doable,” one researcher with an intelligence agency writes to the Voice. A Secret Service spokesman says the agency is aware of the issue, but can’t comment on it for fear of tipping its hand.

Targeting a person with a custom-tailored pathogen would be difficult and expensive, emphasizes Dr. William Nierman, director for research at the Institute for Genomic Research, a central player in the Human Genome Project. But asked by the Voice, Nierman, who was a Navy researcher, explains how it might be done.

First, fish out the target from a sea of human genes, using the handful of DNA markers that “give essentially unique identification to an individual or his/her identical twin,” he writes, in an e-mail interview.

Then seek that person’s weaknesses—tiny details in DNA that make a particular person sensitive to drugs or disease. Little is known about this kind of variation, but it “undoubtedly does exist,” Nierman says. “It is well established for some drugs, and genetic susceptibility to infectious agents is widely believed to be true. . . . Once these differential sensitivities are characterized, they potentially can be used for single-person targeting.”

Now fire. Precursors to the futuristic technology an assassin might employ are being developed today as tools to fight cancer or deliver gene therapy, Nierman says. Load a common virus with a destructive gene, then release the bug into the wild. Designed to activate only in the presence of a single host, the pathogen could flit unnoticed through an entire city of unwitting carriers, a “harmless propagation,” as Nierman terms it, before reaching its target. Every cabbie, waiter, doctor, elevator passenger, and family member would be a Typhoid Mary. Imagine Kennedy’s “Magic Bullet” benignly ricocheting through generations.

No one interviewed by the Voice could theorize a direct defense against such a pathogen, but several expressed skepticism that such a weapon could even be created. For starters, the cost and level of expertise needed would be prohibitive. “To do this now for an individual is almost beyond the pale,” says Dr. John Aach, with Harvard Medical School’s Lipper Center for Computational Genetics. “The future is weird, period, but I don’t see anything like this happening.”

Dr. Temple Smith, a founder of bioinformatics and currently director of the BioMolecular Engineering Research Center at Boston University, flamed the concept. Smith says serious agents of biological warfare target basic—and therefore common—genetic receptors. Going after one person would therefore be unfeasible. “There is no kiss of death,” he writes. “Hey, there are a lot of dumb ideas out there!”

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.

Church, of the Lipper Center, worries that the domestic extremists willing to use genetically modified pathogens aren’t limited to the anti-abortion camp. He fears that opponents of GM foods might fight fire with fire, unleashing a GM blight that wipes out or renders unmarketable only specific modified crops by homing in on a uniform tag that characterizes them.

One member of the Institute for Applied Autonomy, a group of dissident technologists, says anger over problems with genetically modified crops now comes mostly from the third world. There, farmers resent having to pay big corporations for patented seed, which must be purchased each year, when they once could use seed produced in a previous harvest; the resulting monocultures are also more prone to fail, he says. “Once the experience of the negative edge of this relationship includes those with access to the tools of retaliation—in this case, genetics facilities—then you’ve got the seeds of a revolution,” the member says.

Fringe environmentalists are throwing off the gloves. “I believe all methods are now legitimate to curb destruction by greed,” writes Heath Bunting of, in an e-mail. He claims to have created a GM “SuperWeed” seed kit, available through the group’s Web site, to attack genetically modified Roundup Ready crops, which are protected from powerful Roundup herbicides marketed by Monsanto. justifies this gene-tinkering approach by arguing that “without a national ban on GM crops SuperWeeds will occur without your intervention anyway.”

Instructions on continue: “We suggest that you hold this kit until you receive clear signs that there will be a national ban on GM crops within the next few months, in which case destroy these seeds by burning. If you believe that there will be no GM crop ban you could choose to cultivate SuperWeed 1.0 and release it into the environment immediately. If there is no GM crop ban within the next few months, Natural Reality will not hesitate to escalate this conflict further by manufacturing and distributing SuperWeed Kit 2.0 containing many more offensive capabilities.”

Monsanto’s spokesman isn’t impressed, dismissing the idea as “science fiction.” He notes that farmers encounter such “superweeds” every year. If you farm Roundup Ready Soybeans one year and rotate to Roundup Ready Corn the next, some stray soybeans are apt to spring up with the new season as, essentially, superweeds, immune to the company’s herbicide. The solution? Add another herbicide or use another company’s GM seeds for your crop rotation.

Steve Kurtz of the Critical Art Ensemble terms the approach “biological civil disobedience.” Such a new method of protest is “not well theorized or strategized,” he writes. “Playing with reproductive systems, ecosystems, and germ lines is a pretty high gamble.”

Kurtz says his group is open to this type of action, but is still assessing the impact and ethics. The members are now making a bacteria-release machine. “It has similar potential, but in the end, like the SuperWeed, it’s more spectacle than substance,” he says. “While there is a possibility of disaster, the probability is exceptionally low.”

Modified crops may be the most likely target, but scientists say they aren’t more vulnerable to attack, and could even be fortified to be more resistant than ordinary species. Dr. Church, however, warns of residual, unforeseen consequences in the environment. Unlike the linear, binary software programs to which genes are analogized, a messy mix of elements not fully understood determines organic growth.

Spokesmen for both Greenpeace and the Earth Liberation Front—the latter group made headlines recently for burning new homes in suburbia and torching a genetics lab at Michigan State—say genetically manipulating anything, especially for uncontrolled release, would go against their core beliefs. To prevent cross-pollination with native plants, both organizations have destroyed GM crops, but mainly by stomping them down.

Others argue the Earth’s crisis is severe enough that they’ll battle corporate America by any means necessary. “Ethics, schmethics,” writes New York-based techno-artist and researcher Natalie Jeremijenko, who develops biotech hobbyist kits and supports Bunting’s efforts with “There is not an ‘ethics’ that is separate from the motivation for doing something in the first place and the accountability or responsibility one feels for it.

“The question, then, is about what are the ethics of corporate profit,” she adds, “a much more useful focus” than demonizing activists.

Even more powerful than corporations are governments. The British police are holding onto DNA samples from everyone they arrest, even individuals later found innocent, and all 50 American states take samples from some types of felons. A future totalitarian state might take samples at birth, knowing that it could remotely execute those tried in absentia, or, short of that, use painful diseases to compel fugitives to surrender at state-run hospitals. Something that could pass for more humane, but would be equally controlling, would be a genetic device that could change a person’s pigmentation or render other visible signs that they’re wanted by the law. They would be marked like those who tried to escape the dystopia in the film Logan’s Run.

Mainstream scientists say the rapid pace of biotech advancement means ethics matter now more than ever. With the realized dream of reading the genome’s secrets has come the responsibility of preventing their use for evil. Ethicists say those best equipped to make genetic weapons are bound by honor never to do so.

“No physician can be involved in their creation any more than they can be involved in creating biological or chemical weapons, whose only purpose is to harm people,” says George J. Annas of the Bioethics Society of Boston University and chair of the school’s Health Law Department.

A proposal made at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science sought to adapt the Hippocratic oath—to “do no harm”—to encompass all scientific initiatives. It floundered in large part because so many biotech endeavors have dual uses—potential weapon or cure—that many participants worried a chill might set in. Instead, most scientists call for greater monitoring of biological research.

“If somebody decides to develop biological weapons, you’re not going to detect it. Maybe our only response is defense,” counters Alibek, the former Soviet biowarfare leader. “All the information you need you can get from the scientific journals.”

Much gene work for weapons can fly under the radar as legitimate research, notes Alibek, who has done it himself. When the World Health Organization was preparing to eradicate smallpox, Alibek’s team went about sequencing the virus’s genes—ostensibly for future studies. The action was legal and open, but not its purpose. His laboratories’ real objective, he later wrote, was to lay the groundwork for engineering “chimera viruses” that could evade vaccines or treatments.

His team inserted Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis genes into smallpox, and a later combination featured ectromelia. Tests on animals showed simultaneous symptoms of both diseases. The palette grew to include combinations with ebola, he reports. Alibek, a native of Kazakhstan now living in the U.S., writes in his book that he was so deep into the Soviet system that the contradiction between his Hippocratic oath and his daily military research didn’t occur to him.

It’s that kind of loose end that worries the White House official, who’s paid to fret over the merely possible while assessing the probable. Sophisticated attacks like genetic assassinations are “not something we see in the near future,” she says. “But we’re only as good as our intelligence. That’s something we can never forget, and in this case our intelligence has always been lacking. If it were perfect, we’d never have outbreaks of disease or terrorism.”

Also in this week’s Voice:

Up in Smoke

The Supreme Court recently decided against a California club that purchased marijuana for the ill. What effects will the ruling have? Sharon Lerner reports.

Beyond McVeigh

Missing papers, anonymous suspects, an unidentified leg—the McVeigh execution gets some mysteries thrown its way. James Ridgeway investigates.