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Genomics Research Could Help, Thwart Terrorists

Kate Traynor

Researchers must guard against the possibility that their gene-sequencing discoveries could aid in the creation of biological weapons, according to a commentary in the Oct. 22 issue of Nature Genetics (PDF).

The commentary, written by Claire M. Fraser of The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Md., and Malcolm R. Dando of the University of Bradford Department of Peace Studies in England, was accepted for publication a few days before the discovery that biological attacks with anthrax had occurred in the United States.

According to the commentators, knowledge gained during the ongoing "genomics revolution" could be used by terrorists to render pathogens resistant to antimicrobial agents. Another possibility is that genetic material could be transferred from one pathogen to another to create deadly organisms or simplify the conversion of microbes to weapons.

Knowledge of the human genome, Fraser and Dando wrote, could be used in the future to aim pathogens at populations with targeted genetic traits or to create "stealth" organisms and "designer" diseases.

The commentators noted that the direct target of biological warfare need not be restricted to a human population. Bioterrorists could also attack food crops and animals, which, because of relatively little intraspecies genetic variation, may be particularly vulnerable to biological warfare.

But research into genomics can counter some of the threats posed by the technology, the commentators wrote.

By decoding the genetic sequence of important pathogens, researchers could develop microarray technology to quickly detect biological warfare agents after their release. The commentators envisioned a futuristic "DNA chip" that would contain the coding sequences for many likely biological warfare agents and could be used to detect even genetically shuffled versions of these organisms.

Genomics-based vaccine development could also stave off the threat of bioterrorism. Such technology, the commentators noted, is already being used to "mine" the genes of pathogens to find new vaccine targets.

Fraser and Dondo viewed the use of genomics to guide the design of new antimicrobial agents as another promising research area. This technology could one day be used to create antimicrobials that are "highly specific for a particular agent" rather than a broad range of pathogens.

The commentators concluded that genomics-based research that increases the ability to detect, prevent, or treat bioterrorist attacks could decrease the likelihood of such attacks by making them "futile as well as morally acceptable." To achieve this end, the commentators urged the funding of genomics research that specifically addresses the threat of bioterrorism.