Gigi Gronvall, a senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, recently spoke about the role of synthetic biology in national security at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center’s 100th Anniversary Speaker Series at Aberdeen Proving Ground near Aberdeen, Maryland.
Gronvall is currently visiting faculty at Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is also a member of the Threat Reduction Advisory Committee and advises the Secretary of Defense on nuclear, chemical, and biological threats.
The U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center is the primary research and development facility for non-medical chemical and biological defense in the United States.
During her talk, Gronvall emphasized the need for policies to guard against the potential misuse of emergency synthetic biology technologies that allow scientists to do things such as editing parts of the genome and alerting DNA.
“Synthetic biology doesn’t take away from threats in the biological space – it adds to them, and nobody in the field agrees on what the threat is, making policy responses difficult,” Gronvall said.
She also discussed the risks involved with creating viruses in laboratories. Researchers have recently created Ebola and Zika viruses at relatively low cost. Canadian scientists even recently recreated an extinct virus known horsepox, which is similar to smallpox. This research poses risks but could also help cure genetic diseases.
She also noted that, while synthetic biology began in the United States, other countries such as China, Germany, India, and France are now investing in it as well.
“A strong economy presents opportunities in the world for us to influence relationships for the benefit of the U.S.,” Gronvall said. “Those open doors would allow U.S. experts to lead dialogue in the research community on setting ethics and safety standards. Collaboration between researchers in the defense arena will keep the focus on biosecurity.”