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.
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.