State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Do It Yourself Biology – Need for Panic?

By Caitlin Schein

According to a recent New York Times article, disagreements have arisen within the science community about whether or not it is safe and ethical to publish results concerning two new mutant strains of the H5N1 bird flu virus. The controversy is part of an ongoing debate about the safety and practice of unregulated biotechnology and the role of censorship in science.

Colorized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza A H5N1 viruses (seen in gold) grown in MDCK cells (seen in green). Avian influenza A viruses do not usually infect humans; however, several instances of human infections and outbreaks have been reported since 1997. When such infections occur, public health authorities monitor these situations closely. Photo Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith
Scientists from the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) unanimously recommended late last year that the authors and the journals “not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.” Despite wide scale concern over the information, a panel of scientists organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) challenged the NSABB’s recommendation, arguing in favor of publishing the results.

In the two highly polemical experiments (one in a partnership among the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Tokyo and the other from the Erasmus Medical Center), scientists created a highly virulent form of the deadly bird flu virus. Typically, the virus spreads aggressively among birds; on rare occasions, it can also infect people, with a mortality rate of about 60 percent. But unlike others strains of the virus, this evolved form is capable of spreading from person to person.

The general methods of the papers are well established: in order to transform the deadly H5N1 into a viable aerosol virus, the researchers repeatedly transferred infected material among ferrets. These mammals are model organisms for research on influenza and are often used as indicators for how the virus will affect humans. Each time the virus entered a new host, its ability to disrupt normal cell function strengthened; eventually, it became as easily transmissible as the seasonal flu.

For decades, scientists have been drawing upon evolutionary biology to study, experiment with, and mutate various viruses. By infecting mammals with a virus, and allowing it to spread and intensify in a controlled setting, scientists have developed vaccines to some of the most deadly pathogens, including diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, and polio.

When a foreign substance enters the human body, the immune system quickly detects it (using immune cells designed to identify “non-self” antigens on the surface of virally infected host cells) and activates a suite of impressive defense mechanisms. In most cases, the pathogen is destroyed, and the immune system, adaptive by nature, never “forgets” its presence. Equipped with this immunological memory, the immune system is able to attack with greater speed and strength when the virus strikes again.

To create a vaccine, scientists intentionally mutate the virus, altering its genes, structure, and expression. After many manipulations, they are able to transform the harmful pathogen into a much weaker version. Drawing upon the natural defense mechanisms of the immune system, people expose themselves to the benign form of the virus to build a resistance to the more harmful one.

For example, scientists developed a vaccination for Small Pox in the 19th century by exposing people to a similar virus that infected cows. When individuals were exposed to the attenuated virus, their adaptive immune systems sprung into action and built up a resistance to Small Pox. Still, the disease was responsible for an estimated 500 million deaths during the 20th century. And, perhaps even more shocking, the WHO estimated that nearly 15 million people contracted the disease as recently as 1967. After a series of widespread vaccination campaigns, the WHO declared the eradication of smallpox in 1979.

We know that this sort of biotechnology is an incredibly impactful tool for a trained virologist, capable of destroying deadly viruses and bringing well being to all. However, some scientists fear that the experimental details and mutation data in the reports may lead to more dangerous replications. The unregulated biotechnology could equip terrorists with the necessary information to develop destructive bioweapons. Or, a wave of amateur scientists could accidently release the virus.

In the 21st century, the advent of cheap technology and easier access to science sparked the “Do It Yourself Biology Movement,” with citizen scientists fully equipped to conduct scientific experiments of their own. For example,, an institution “dedicated to making biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists and biological engineers who value openness and safety,” has more than 2,000 members. Genspace, “a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting citizen science and access to biotechnology,” opened the first-ever community biotechnology laboratory. Some find the movement inspiring, emphasizing a passion for citizen science, while others are downright terrified of it, invoking the importance of biosecurity.

As we all wait for the publication deadlock to be over, the scientific community remains equally divided on the H5N1 controversy. Where do you stand?
Interested in learning more about how diseases and other life forms evolve? CERC is offering a course on Evolution: Darwin to DNA as part of the Certificate in Conservation and Environmental Sustainability. This course provides an overview of concepts of biological evolution, from pre–‐Darwinian attempts to describe life through modern genetic theory. It emphasizes the history of evolutionary thought and science, review the basic principles of evolutionary theory, and discuss their implications for modern life as well as state–‐of–‐the art technologies, such as genomics. Topics covered include natural selection, types of fitness and variation, speciation, reproduction and the transfer of genetic traits, the structure of DNA and a look at evolution over the long term via introductory systematics. The course is on Tuesdays, Apr. 10, 17, 24, May 1, 8 (5 sessions, 6:10-­8:10PM).

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments