As new biological techniques advance, there are justifiable concerns these technologies could be used to create manmade pandemics. These worries often center on synthetic biology. Some policymakers and pundits believe these techniques are too simple; that virtually anyone with basic lab skills could leverage them to develop an effective biological weapon. The reality is far more complex and encouraging.
Synthetic biology simplifies some research but does little to enable homemade biological weapons. It’s difficult to convince biological systems to do mass harm, and doing it efficiently requires sophisticated, and specialized, scientific knowledge.
We’ve recently experienced SARS, Ebola, Zika and other deadly outbreaks. These didn’t come from a lab, they came from nature. As humans encounter new pathogens, nature will continue to evolve microbes to more efficiently infect us. Importantly, nature has mastered an incredible tool: evolution. Compound this with transoceanic air travel, and our modern lifestyle is almost perfectly tuned to spread natural infectious agents.
Bioterrorism plots may make for good pulp novels and Hollywood movies, but in reality, virulent, natural pathogens pose a far greater danger to human life. Fortunately, we can leverage the emerging collection of synthetic biology tools to detect, mitigate and halt these outbreaks and save lives.
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