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Synthetic Biology in Defence: Opportunities and Threats

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Human Factors and Medicine

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Over the past two decades synthetic biology has emerged as a powerful approach to study and manipulate biology by combining microbiology and genetic engineering techniques with the principles of systems engineering. Synthetic biology can be defined as the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, or the re-design of existing, natural biological systems. Several scientific and technological advances, including increased data processing power, artificial intelligence/machine learning, robust sequencing and synthesis capabilities enabling faster, cheaper, and more accurate reading and writing of nucleic acids, and powerful nucleic acids editing techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9, are recognized as fundamental enablers of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology provides a platform of tools which enable the integration of biology into other technologies and has an application potential that transcends nearly all areas of technology. Synthetic biology tools enable the manipulation of biology with non-biological matter to create molecules and materials not accessible in nature otherwise. The ability to manipulate biology with ever greater precision, as synthetic biology enables, inherently raises the dual-use risk. The possibility to create novel threats remains a risk. The ability to create more effective biological weapons remains a concern, e.g. infectious diseases that do not respond to treatment with existing antibiotics or anti-viral drugs, biological agents that escape current methods for detection, identification, and attribution, and biological agents with altered properties in terms of their environmental persistence, contagiousness and/or mode of transmission. From the defence perspective the use of synthetic biology may therefore trigger the need for new countermeasures and protective measures. Another concern is that novel, non-natural organisms will intentionally be released into the environment and disrupt the normal fauna and flora with devastating effects, which may negatively affect public health, economy, national security, and regional stability. On the other hand, the use of synthetic biology to engineer and manipulate biology may also have beneficial effects from the defence perspective including the development of new countermeasures and protective measures to maintain operational readiness in challenging conditions. Some examples of such beneficial effects include smaller, lighter power sources (e.g. batteries), including energy harvesting, precision control of corrosion and wear, disclosure of fatigue and tamper-evident materials, self-cleaning and self-healing materials, and transparent, lightweight-but-strong materials.


The RTG study will focus on technology advancements and issues related to the impact of synthetic biology on the NATO defence structure and NATOs ability to prevent/assess, protect, and recover/mitigate during NATO operations.


Synthetic biology in terms of opportunities and threats regarding NATOs ability to prevent/assess, protect, and recover/mitigate in the context of defence, e.g. by addressing the following questions: • How to exploit/leverage the opportunities that may emerge? • How to counter the threats that may emerge? Potential challenges (threats): • Faster evolving threat space may result in increased probability of facing major unwanted surprises • Not limited to historical/conventional agents/agents covered by current treaties/conventions • De-skilling of bioengineering skills • Do-it-yourself (DIY) biology • Big data and information overload; bioinformatics interpretation, computer processing power, available digital communication bandwidth • High consequence biowarfare (intentional), bioterror (intentional), or bioerror (unintentional) • Unforeseen long term effects to humans and the environment • Differing legislation/regulations between NATO partners can affect logistics and environmental impact • Increased agility needed to detect/identify and counter unknown/novel/unforeseen threats • Intentionally induced sequence changes to specifically circumvent/bypass detection, identification, and monitoring (DIM), diagnostics, attribution, and treatment • Increased need for generic DIM, diagnostics, attribution, and treatment approaches, and complementary/orthogonal technologies such as e.g. whole genome sequencing and proteomics, to ensure timely discovery of bioengineering markers and sufficient in-depth characterization of agent to predict potential phenotypic effects • Increased difficulty/uncertainty in epidemiological tracking and prediction and decision-making, due to the lack of background knowledge on properties of bioengineered agents • Genetic data security; information and database sharing, who controls genetic information, genetic targeting • A difference in ethical considerations to employing synthetically engineered organisms into populations or environment Potential benefits (opportunities): • Human performance enhancement and medicine o Personalized food/rations incl. probiotics o New vaccines/on demand vaccine production o Organ and tissue regeneration o Far Forward Diagnostics o Precision/Personalized medicine o Engineered microbiomes • Novel materials o Stabilization of biofuels (corrosive perspective) o Novel precursor materials (new products, new properties, on demand production) o Novel fibers/coatings/armor o New decontaminants/self-decontaminating materials o Respiratory protection (new filter materials) • Sensors o New sensor elements o More (bio-)selective sensors o More sensitive sensors o Smaller sensors (e.g. for use in wearables)

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