Renovating Governance Strategies for Synthetic Biology and Other 'Dual-Use' Technologies

Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, United States


The life sciences offer tremendous societal benefits and are diffusing worldwide, but this scientific revolution carries potentially devastating risks. Synthetic biology has opened the door to de novo assembly of appalling contemporary pathogens and those responsible for eradicated diseases, such as smallpox, while other vanguard life sciences technologies could be hijacked to manipulate the human immune, nervous, and endocrine systems. Some gene synthesis companies have voluntarily taken steps to prevent the rogue assembly of dangerous pathogens by screening customers and orders for genes. Similarly, after the September 11th attacks, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) forged a public-private screening partnership with manufacturers of various “dual-use” goods and services that could be diverted from legitimate purposes to cause harm, a quietly effective tool in efforts to disrupt and prosecute terrorist and criminal activities. Government and academia, respectively the traditional guarantors of national security and fountains of innovation, will be hard-pressed to keep pace with the life sciences revolution and fashion new governance approaches. If industry more fully enters the nonproliferation fray, society will have better leverage to keep one step ahead of the bad guys.