health | July 14, 2013

Laurie Garrett: A Biology Revolution Could Save Lives—And Threaten Them

Imagine a world where the average person can send a deadly virus through an email, then print it out using a 3D printer. In her new video, Laurie Garrett explains that a burgeoning revolution in biology has propelled this scenario from science fiction into reality. The combination of synthetic biology and 3D printers has enabled scientists to create organisms that never existed in nature—and bring them to life with the touch of a few buttons. We are now able to change the rules of evolution, Garrett, a prominent health speaker, explains. And, this dual-use research of concern (DURC) is spawning technologies that are both life-saving and life-threatening at the same time.

What's DURC? Concerns over this type of research spurred when the same experiments that allowed scientists to better understand pandemics also produced dangerous pathogens. Since viruses change and evolve dynamically, they are difficult to contain; they can adapt to beat our immune systems and vaccines. By deliberately manipulating the genetic codes of these viruses, scientists can predict these adaptations ahead of time. Great news, right? Well, not exactly. In the process of altering the original virus, scientists also created a whole new one. Now, we're faced with the conundrum of publishing important scientific discovery at the risk of compromising national security.

In the 1990's, Garrett says it took "160 labs, $5 billion dollars, and 10 years to sequence a human genome...[today] you can get a sequencer for $1,000 and do it in your kitchen in 24 hours." Combine this cheap and accessible technology with the ability to print everything from steel, to hamburgers, to viruses, and you have an exhilarating and terrifying future on your hands. Garrett, the Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, says it's important to address these concerns now. Science is moving forward at an astounding rate, she explains. and since we've changing the evolutionary game—we need to change the rules, too. We have the potential to create life-changing solutions to some of our biggest global problems. But, we need to ensure we are keeping everyone safe in this age of biological revolution, too.

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science | July 11, 2013