Mini advent calendar of Xrisks: synthetic biology

The FHI’s mini ad­vent cal­en­dar: count­ing down through the big five ex­is­ten­tial risks. The sec­ond one is a new, ex­cit­ing risk: syn­thetic biol­ogy.

Syn­thetic biol­o­gy
Cur­rent un­der­stand­ing: medium-low
Most wor­ry­ing as­pect: hack­ers ex­per­i­ment­ing with our ba­sic biol­o­gy
Syn­thetic biol­ogy cov­ers many in­ter-re­lated fields, all con­cerned with the con­struc­tion and con­trol of new biolog­i­cal sys­tems. This area has already at­tracted the at­ten­tion of bio-hack­ers, ex­per­i­ment­ing with DNA and other biolog­i­cal sys­tems to perform novel tasks – and gain­ing ku­dos for ex­otic ac­com­plish­ments. The bio­sphere is filled with many or­ganisms ac­com­plish­ing spe­cific tasks; com­bin­ing these and con­trol­ling them could al­low the con­struc­tion of ex­tremely deadly bioweapons, tar­geted very nar­rowly (at all those pos­sess­ing a cer­tain gene, for in­stance). Viru­lent virus with long in­cu­ba­tion pe­ri­ods could be con­structed, or com­mon hu­man bac­te­ria could be hacked to perform a va­ri­ety of roles in the body. And hu­mans are not the only po­ten­tial tar­gets: whole swaths of the ecosys­tem could be taken down, ei­ther to gain com­mer­cial or eco­nomic ad­van­tages, for ter­ror­ist pur­poses, or sim­ply by ac­ci­dent.

More­over, the med­i­cal mir­a­cles promised by syn­thetic biol­ogy are not eas­ily sep­a­rated from the dan­ger: the tar­geted con­trol needed to, for in­stance, kill can­cer cells, could also be used to tar­get brain cells or the im­mune sys­tem. This would not be so fright­en­ing if the field im­ple­mented safety mea­sures com­men­su­rate with the risks; but syn­thetic biol­ogy has been ex­tremely lax in its pre­cau­tions and cul­turally re­sis­tant to reg­u­la­tions.