Reason Triumphs—Potential Bioweapon Sequences Are Openly Available

The U.S. National Academies of Science concluded that bans on access are more likely to keep scientists away from their lab benches than to keep terrorists away from their schemes.

The lead editorial in a leading medical journal called for genomic data on pathogens to remain widely available, saying the benefits of promoting medical research far outweigh the risks of helping bioterrorists. It lauded the same conclusion by a panel of the U.S. National Academies of Science and Engineering.

/zimages/6/28571.gifTo read a summary of the panels decision, click here.

On the same day the Lancet article appeared, researchers from Columbia University published the sequence for the bacteria causing Legionairres disease in Science, another highly esteemed journal, and in GenBank, a public database. Making the sequences available was one of the conditions of his National Institutes of Health funding, but corresponding author James Russo said he was very happy to do so.

I asked how one should weigh the risks and benefits of providing such data. He acknowledged that it was a tough question. "Id like to think for every person with such sinister motives, there are many many scientists with an interest in using the information for health or other benefits, and with an interest in developing biological, medical and other ways to overcome potential threats," Russo said.

For example, the sequence had already found genes that might explain how the bacteria could move through biofilms and tissues, and could be targets for future drug discovery. Other genes code for surface proteins on the bacteria and could inspire vaccines. The high number of genes that seem to code for proteins to shunt heavy metals outside the bacteria could explain why the potentially lethal pathogen could actually live inside human white blood cells.

Figuring out exactly what the genes do and how that knowledge might be used to develop therapies was out of his ken, Russo said. Thats precisely why he wants to share the data. The scientists who do study how bacteria invade tissues, evade the immune system and otherwise wreak havoc often use sequence data to track down genes involved in those processes. Indeed, said Russo, as the collection of sequenced bacterial genomes grow, researchers are finding many more unique genes than expected. These genes are potentially launching pads for work toward new antibiotics or engineering useful bacteria.

Some might argue that genes are also launching pads for terror attacks, but Russo said that was unlikely without a vast research infrastructure. "Its a long way from sequencing an organism to understanding how it works, so I dont think simply providing a sequence will be a big help to bioterrorists," he said.

Comparing the genome of one bacteria with another has already yielded some useful surprises. The Legionella bacterium has a much more dangerous and infectious cousin, Coxiella burnetti, which causes Q fever. Having both sequences has pointed to some genetic explanations of their differences and similarities, said Russo, so some studies of Coxiella burnetti could likely be done using the less dangerous Legionella.

In other words, access to genomic data increases, rather than decreases, safety. There is some risk in making these sequences available, yes. To consider these risks, the National Science Foundation, Central Intelligence Agency, National Institutes of Health and other groups sought advice from the National Research Council, the working arm of the National Academies of Science and Engineering. The National Academies is an independent organization, established by Congress to give scientific advice. Its panel concluded that bans on access are more likely to keep scientists away from their lab benches than to keep terrorists away from their schemes. "Open access is essential if we are to maintain the progress needed to stay ahead of those who would attempt to cause harm," said Stanley Falkow, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. Such reasoning seems a welcome respite to the partisan science seen lately from government agencies.

M.L. Baker writes about health and biotechnology IT for E-mail her at

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