In November, 2017, the British Internet publication Independent, posted an article on the Advanced Plant Technologies (APT) Advanced Synthetic Biology Program (DARPA), devoted to a new synthetic biology program of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The military department plans to create genetically modified algae, which can function as self-supported sensors to collect information in conditions where the use of traditional technologies is impossible. How realistic is this and how does it threaten humanity?
It is assumed that the natural abilities of plants can be used to detect the relevant chemicals, harmful microorganisms, radiation and electromagnetic signals. At the same time, a change in their genome will allow the military to control the state of the environment and not only. This in turn will allow you to remotely monitor the reaction of plants, using the already existing technical means.
According to APT's program manager, Blake Bekstin (Blake Bextine), the goal of DARPA in this case is to develop an effective reusable system for designing, directly creating and testing various biological platforms with easily adaptable capabilities that can be applied to a wide range of scenarios.
We pay tribute to American scientists and the US military, which is actively contributing to the development of synthetic biology. At the same time, we note that the significant progress of recent years, the expected results of which should be aimed at the benefit of humanity, has also created a completely new problem, the consequences of which are unpredictable and unpredictable. It turns out that the United States now has the technical ability to design artificial (synthetic) microorganisms that are absent in vivo. So, it's about biological weapons (BO) a new generation.
If we recall, in the past century, intensive US research on the development of BO was aimed at both obtaining strains of causative agents of dangerous human infectious diseases with altered properties (overcoming specific immunity, poly-antibiotic resistance, increasing pathogenicity), and developing means of identifying them and protective measures. As a result, improved methods for indicating and identifying genetically modified microorganisms. Schemes have been developed for the prevention and treatment of infections caused by natural and altered forms of bacteria.
The first experiments on the use of recombinant DNA techniques and technologies were carried out back in 70-x and were devoted to modifying the genetic code of natural strains by incorporating single genes into their genome that could change the properties of bacteria. This opened up opportunities for scientists to solve such important problems as obtaining biofuels, bacterial electricity, medicines, diagnostic products and multidiagnostic platforms, synthetic vaccines, etc. An example of successful realization of such goals is the creation of bacteria containing recombinant DNA and producing synthetic insulin .
But there is another side. In 2002, viable polioviruses were artificially synthesized, including those similar to the causative agent of “Spanish flu” that claimed tens of millions of lives in 1918. Although attempts are being made to create effective vaccines based on such artificial strains.
In 2007, scientists from the J. Craig Venter Research Institute (JCVI, USA) were the first to transport the whole genome of one type of bacteria (Mycoplasma mycoides) to another (Mycoplasma capricolum) and proved the viability of the new microorganism. To determine the synthetic origin of such bacteria, markers, so-called watermarks, are usually introduced into their genome.
Synthetic biology is an intensively developing area, representing a qualitatively new step in the development of genetic engineering. From the movement of several genes between organisms to the design and construction of unique biological systems that do not exist in nature with “programmed” functions and properties. Moreover, genomic sequencing and the creation of databases of the complete genomes of various microorganisms will make it possible to develop modern strategies for the DNA synthesis of any microbe in the laboratory.
As you know, DNA consists of four bases, the sequence and composition of which determine the biological properties of living organisms. Modern science makes it possible to introduce into the composition of the synthetic genome "unnatural" bases, the functioning of which in the cell is pre-programmed very difficult. And such experiments on the “integration” of unknown DNA sequences with unidentified functions into an artificial genome are already being performed abroad. In the USA, Great Britain and Japan, multidisciplinary centers dealing with the problems of synthetic biology have been created, researchers of various specialties work there.
However, it is obvious that when using modern methodological techniques, the likelihood of "accidental" or intentional production of chimeric biological weapons agents unknown to humanity with a completely new set of pathogenicity factors increases. In this regard, an important aspect arises - ensuring the biological safety of such studies. According to some experts, synthetic biology belongs to the field of activity with high risks associated with the construction of new viable microorganisms. It cannot be ruled out that life forms created in the laboratory can break out of the test tube, turn into biological weapons and this will threaten the existing natural diversity.
Particularly noteworthy is the fact that publications on issues of synthetic biology, unfortunately, did not reflect another important problem, namely the preservation of the stability of the artificially created genome of bacteria. Microbiologists are well aware of the phenomenon of spontaneous mutations due to changes or deletions (deletions) of a particular gene in the genome of bacteria and viruses, which lead to changes in the properties of the cell. However, in natural conditions, the frequency of occurrence of such mutations is small and the genome of microorganisms is characterized by relative stability.
The evolutionary process has shaped the diversity of the microbial world for thousands of years. Today, the entire classification of families, genera and species of bacteria and viruses is based on the stability of genetic sequences, which allows their identification and determines the specific biological properties. They were the starting point for the creation of such modern diagnostic methods as the determination of protein or fatty acid profiles of microorganisms using MALDI-ToF mass spectrometry or chromo-mass spectrometry, identifying DNA-specific for each microbe using PCR analysis, etc. At the same time, the stability of the synthetic genome of “chimeric” microbes is currently unknown, and it is impossible to predict how much we were able to “deceive” nature and evolution. Therefore, to predict the consequences of accidental or intentional penetration of such artificial microorganisms outside the laboratories is very difficult. Even with the “harmlessness” of the created microbe, its appearance “into the light” with completely different conditions from the laboratory can lead to increased mutability and the formation of new variants with unknown, possibly aggressive properties. A vivid illustration of this provision is the creation of an artificial bacterium synthium.
Death for bottling
Cynthia (Mycoplasma laboratorium) is a synthetic strain of mycoplasma, derived in the laboratory. It is capable of independent reproduction and was intended, as stated in foreign media, to eliminate the consequences of an oil disaster in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico by absorbing pollution.
In 2011, the bacteria launched into the oceans to destroy oil spills that pose a threat to the ecology of the Earth. This rash and poorly calculated decision soon turned into dire consequences - the microorganisms were out of control. There were reports of a terrible disease, called by journalists blue plague and which became the cause of extinction of the fauna in the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, all publications that caused panic among the population belong to the periodical press, while scientific publications prefer to remain silent. Currently, there is no direct scientific evidence (or they are deliberately hiding) that the unknown, fatal disease is caused by Cynthia. However, there is no smoke without fire; therefore, the stated versions of the ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico require close attention and study.
It is assumed that in the process of absorption of petroleum products, synthia changed and expanded nutritional needs, including animal proteins in the “diet”. Getting into the microscopic wounds on the body of fish and other marine animals, it spreads through the bloodstream to all organs and systems, in a short time, literally eating away everything in its path. In just a few days, the skin of the seals becomes covered with ulcers, constantly bleeding, and then completely rot. Alas, there were reports of deaths (with the same symptom complex) and people swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.
An important point is the fact that in the case of Synthia, the disease is not amenable to treatment with known antibiotics, since antibiotic resistance genes have been introduced into the bacterium genome, in addition to “watermarks”. The latter is surprising and questions. Why originally a saprophytic microbe unable to cause human and animal diseases, antibiotic resistance genes?
In this regard, at least the silence of the official representatives and authors of this infection looks strange. According to some experts, there is a concealment of the true scale of the tragedy at the government level. It is also suggested that in the case of the use of Cynthia it is a question of using a broad-spectrum bacteriological weapon that poses a threat of an intercontinental epidemic. At the same time, in order to dispel panic and rumors, the United States has a whole arsenal of modern methods for identifying microorganisms, and determining the etiological agent of this unknown infection is not difficult. Of course, it cannot be excluded that this is the result of the direct effect of oil on a living organism, although the symptoms of the disease more indicate its infectious nature. Nevertheless, the question, we repeat, requires clarity.
Natural concern concerns the uncontrolled research of many Russian and foreign scientists. To reduce the risk, several directions are proposed - the introduction of personal responsibility for development with an unprogrammable result, the increase of scientific literacy at the level of professional training, and wide public awareness of the achievements of synthetic biology through the media. But is the community ready to follow these rules? For example, removal of a anthrax pathogen from a US lab and sending them in envelopes casts doubt on the effectiveness of the control. Moreover, taking into account modern possibilities, the availability of databases of genetic sequences of bacteria, including causative agents of especially dangerous infections, DNA synthesis techniques, and methods for creating artificial microbes is facilitated. We can not exclude the receipt of unauthorized access to this information by hackers with the subsequent sale to interested parties.
As the experience of “launching” into the natural environment of Cynthia shows, all the proposed measures are ineffective and do not guarantee the biological safety of the environment. In addition, it cannot be excluded that there may be long-term environmental consequences of the introduction into the nature of an artificial microorganism.
The proposed control measures — widespread notification of the media and strengthening the ethical responsibility of researchers in creating artificial forms of microorganisms — have not yet inspired optimism. The most effective is the legal regulation of the biological safety of synthetic life forms and their monitoring system at the international and national levels on the new risk assessment system, which should include a comprehensive, experimentally evidence-based study of the consequences in the field of synthetic biology. A possible solution may also be the creation of an international expert council to assess the risks of using its products.
Analysis shows that science has reached a completely new frontier and posed unexpected problems. So far, the indication and identification schemes for hazardous agents have been directed to their detection based on the detection of specific antigenic or genetic markers. But when creating chimeric microorganisms with different pathogenicity factors, these approaches are ineffective.
Moreover, currently developed schemes for specific and emergency prophylaxis, etiotropic therapy of dangerous infections can also be useless, as they are designed, even if modified variants are used, for a known pathogen.
Humanity, unknowingly, embarked on the path of biological warfare with unknown consequences. Winners in this war may not be.