I. Cheap Street Drugs
An editorial in the May 18, 2015 edition of Nature calls for the regulation of GMO yeast that can be used to cheaply synthesize common opiates such as morphine and codeine. The editorial is in response to recent research that reported the development of a pathway for converting tyrosine into reticuline, a necessary step toward production of illicit substances.
In principle, anyone with access to the yeast strain and basic skills in fermentation would be able to grow morphine-producing yeast using a home-brew kit for beer-making. If the modified yeast strain produced 10 grams of morphine, users would need to drink only 1–2 millilitres of the liquid to obtain a standard prescribed dose. — Ibid. (Emphasis added.)
More from Nature:
The technology to make morphine from glucose using yeast has been seven years in the making. Three groups of researchers introduced genetic components from poppy, beetroot and a soil bacterium into the yeast genome, creating strains that can perform chunks of the glucose-to-morphine pathway. A fourth group has developed a strain that can convert one of the intermediate compounds, (S)-reticuline, into another, (R)-reticuline. With this final step realized, the creation of a single strain of yeast capable of executing the entire pathway is feasible.
An enterprising Walter White could easily switch from meth production to opiate production, taking advantage of the lower cost and less dangerous production method to flood the streets with narcotics.
This is just what America needs: Cheap and widely available opiates controlled by street gangs and biker gangs. A whole new chapter in the War on Drugs.
A final thought from Nature regarding GMO morphine:
Developers of the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 have called for proactive engagement with risks before altering populations of animals and plants in the wild or manipulating human reproductive cells. With all the signs that synthetic biology is coming of age, this type of responsible conduct is imperative.
II. GMO Poison Factories
The fact that GMO morphine is now or will soon be within reach for even a home chemist leads us to a more troubling topic: The creation of GMOs that produce poisons such as ricin. According to WikiPedia, ricin is a highly toxic, naturally occurring lectin (a carbohydrate-binding protein) produced in the seeds of the castor oil plant, Ricinus communis. A dose of purified ricin powder the size of a few grains of table salt can kill an adult human. The median lethal dose (LD50) of ricin is around 22 micrograms per kilogram of body weight (1.78 milligram for an average adult) when inhaled or injected.
Inserting genes that manufacture proteins into GMOs is well-established, and with CRISPR/Cas9, the process has become almost trivial. In fact, genetic engineering techniques are used to create GMO corn, which manufactures the Cry1Ab protein fatal to bugs that feed on the plants. While the brewer’s yeast discussed in Section I is not a good medium, as the ricin harms the yeast’s own ribosomes, genetically engineered e. coli capable of producing ricin were developed almost 30 years ago. As GMO technology spreads and simplifies, even relatively unsophisticated laboratories will be able to create such bacteria.
As it turns out, though, ricin is not particularly effective as a weapon. Some have tried. You may remember this recent case involving ricin and the White House:
The woman who mailed letters containing ricin last year to the White House and then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was sentenced Wednesday to 18 years in federal prison.
Shannon Richardson, 36, of New Boston,Texas, admitted that she ordered supplies in her husband’s name, made a form of the deadly toxin ricin, sent the letters in May 2013, then told the police she suspected her estranged husband did it. — NBC News
Most likely, if a terrorist organization were determined to produce deadly GMO weapons, manufacture of ricin would simply be used as a practice run for the technology rather than as an end goal. Instead, potentially more deadly substances such as botulinum or anthrax toxins or designer viruses and bacteria would be sought. Development of such materials will likely be within reach of both home-grown and international terrorists before long as genetic engineering technology continues advancing at a rapid pace.
Here is an October, 2013 article about a new botulinum toxin and the decision of researchers to not publish genetic engineering details for fear of it falling into the wrong hands: Why Scientists Held Back Details On A Unique Botulinum Toxin.
For more about GMO bioweapons, this article in the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science Genetically Engineered Bioweapons: A New Breed of Weapons for Modern Warfare provides a good overview.
III. Weaponized GMO Crops
Finally, an enterprising terrorist organization could pursue weaponized GMO crops. This would involve creating GMO crops that produce toxins deadly to humans instead of bugs or that substitute a gene to manufacture anthrax exotoxin in place of the gene that prevents browning in Arctic® apples.
While it would take a major operation to infiltrate the food crops of a large developed nation like the United States, it’s not infeasible to imagine a rogue state like North Korea tampering with farms in South Korea or Boko Haram contaminating Nigeria’s seed distribution system. Even if the actual crops were only partially successful at murder, the cost of disruptions to the food network could run into the 10s of billions of dollars. Massive testing and major recalls would need to be conducted to assure the safety of the food supply and restore public confidence.
Most technologies have a dark side that is exposed when they are put to malevolent uses. The flip side of nuclear powered electricity is the nuclear bomb. Gunpowder was initially used for creating beautiful fireworks but it did not take long for it to be put to use in weapons. Likewise, GMOs may provide certain benefits to mankind, but their dark side is appearing as the potential for illicit use in producing street drugs and weapons is now being recognized.
Let’s hope the governments of the world work in concert to put appropriate regulations and controls in place before the genie fully escapes the bottle. Those first steps by the CRISPR/Cas9 developers and by the authors of the Nature editorial are a good start. You can do your part by sending a link to the Nature editorial to your elected representatives. As the authors note, “The right choices in the regulation of this dual-use technology will set a precedent for other fast-emerging biotechnologies.”