Every year, thousands of budding biologists compete in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition. Their goal is to employ synthetic biology to address pressing global issues. The list of sponsors is pretty much what you would expect for such an event—software companies, scientific journals, organizations focused on clean energy and agriculture.
But there's one name on the list that's fairly arresting: the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Why would the FBI care about the projects of high school and college biology students?
iGEM is just one of the ways that the FBI is collaborating with the biotech community, says Megan Palmer, a senior research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.
In order to be prepared to respond to an emerging biological threat, no matter if it's an accidental outbreak or a biological attack, the FBI is working to create a culture of trust and transparency with the biotech community. Palmer discussed this topic last week at the Biofabricate conference for synthetic biology and design in New York City.
Biological attacks have happened in the past—in 1984, cult members poisoned patrons of 10 salad bars in Oregon with salmonella, sickening more than 750 people; in 2001, anthrax spores mailed to newsrooms and government offices killed five people. Other incidents have sometimes failed because the would-be attackers made some scientific errors, rendering their weapons ineffective, Palmer says.
Bioterror incidents are extremely difficult to predict.
But bioterror incidents are extremely difficult to predict. In the past governments have built the deadliest biological weapons programs, but one worry is that now small groups may also be able to do serious damage, Palmer says. Is the spread of an unlikely or new disease an accident, or could it be intentional? And if it was intentional, it would take a while for law enforcement to figure out who launched it and from where.
It makes sense that government agencies like the FBI would want to prevent these sort of attacks before they happen. But there are other challenges there. As technology rapidly becomes more sophisticated, it's not always easy for law enforcement to understand how it works or to ask the right questions to understand threats. In some cases, it's not clear what kind of information authorities would need to estimate risk, or it would be dangerous or unethical to conduct the kinds of experiments they would need to answer those questions.
That's why the FBI, along with other government agencies like the Departments of Defense and State, have looked for more opportunities to create trust and transparency with the biohacker community. Spearheaded by Edward You, a supervisory special agent in the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate who is a molecular biologist by training, the relationship between the two is getting cozier.
In addition to informing students about the history and risks of a bioterror attack, the FBI launched the International Biosecurity and Prevention Forum designed to get experts to discuss how to prevent biosecurity risks; the agency has also helped support fellowships in responsible biotechnology leadership, including at the Synthetic Biology Leadership Excellence Accelerator Program, which Palmer directs. To the FBI, these efforts aren't just important to stave off a bioterror attack—they also protect the biotech community from harmful actors, as well as the parts of the economy based on that technology, Palmer notes.
Individuals and companies in the private sector are stepping up to the responsibility. There are examples of iGEM students acting as white hat biohackers to help biotech companies detect weaknesses in their systems that might enable bioterrorists to get the materials to launch an attack—all in collaboration with the FBI, Palmer says.
"There's the overall sense that the government has acknowledged that it is not necessarily the center of influence in technological development," Palmer says. "We're going to start seeing many more examples of partnerships between the government and the private sector where you wouldn't have necessarily expected them before. People should be willing to give them a chance."
"There's the overall sense that the government has acknowledged that it is not necessarily the center of influence in technological development."
But there's a natural tension between biohackers embedded in fringe communities and government agencies that are traditionally secretive. To Palmer, the key to the collaboration is open communication. So far, it's going well—Palmer says she has been asking the FBI questions about its involvement, what it sees in the field, and why the agency is spending so much time and effort to be involved, and so far she says they have "been willing to have more of those conversations."
Still, the relationship has not yet been tested by what Palmer calls a "triggering event," a situation in which people start getting sick and biologists are suspected to be behind it, or one in which the biologists find that the FBI has been monitoring them just a little too closely. If the relationship doesn't withstand a test like that, the trust between the agency and the community would erode. Communication would break down.
If biologists and federal agents continue to frame biosecurity as a mutual responsibility, that day will never come. "The efforts of individuals within larger organizations can make all the difference in the framing," Palmer says.
So the FBI starts that foundation early. At the iGEM meeting in October, Palmer says, the agency addressed students about the history of bioterror and told them to be aware of suspicious activity. Some kids weren't just inspired to participate, Palmer says—they wanted to be running the conversation. "Lots of these kids may think, 'Well maybe I can be in the FBI, maybe I can be a science advisor to the Department of State,'" Palmer says. "These are people that are trying to cultivate a healthy overall ecosystem of institutions that are working in this space. It's not just 'Us against Them.'"
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