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Scientists warn the effects of synthetic biology in warfare


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IT SOUNDS more like something from a Matthew Reilly book than real life. But programmable bioweapons are coming and scientists are warning that they could be just as, if not more deadly than nuclear weapons.

 

The weapons use something known as synthetic biology, which is a bit like genetic engineering on steroids. Basically, it involves reprogramming genes to do specific things. Already scientists are working to use synthetic biology to create plants that can sniff out drugs at airports.

 

But a panel of academic experts at the New America Future of War conference overnight have warned that weapons made using synthetic biology could be as big of a problem as nuclear weapons were in the past.

 

“The biologically-based conflicts of the future would be wild by comparison: I’ll wipe out your food supply, I’ll wipe out your water, I’ll wipe out your ability to reproduce, I’ll wipe out your ability for your gene line to advance.” said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University.

 

“We have to figure out some way to rethink this stuff before we can no longer think about it,” he said.

The United States’ equivalent of Australia’s defence technology research agency DSTO, DARPA has been researching the possibility to use synthetic biology for warfare for years, and even started a dedicated division in 2014 called the Biological Technologies Office.

 

Their research has been nothing less than terrifying.

 

In 2011, DARPA began investing money into a project called BioDesign. Its goal was to create a “synthetic organism” that can live forever, or if need be, killed off with the flick of a molecular switch. These organisms can then be used to do whatever their creators want them to, or as DARPA puts it, “produce the intended biological effect.”

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