On debilitation

Mostly when we think about biothreats we think about critical rather than chronic attacks. This is because our adversaries are most likely to use these weapons against us to sow destruction and chaos, rather than to attempt a long-term modification of our society (although, as we have seen with 9/11, critical attacks can lead to chronic changes).

While we undoubtedly face adversaries who think over decades or even centuries, in the absence of a Moriarty-like planner who can manage to coordinate untold numbers of skeins in a conspiracy tapestry it seems unlikely that we will ever have to worry about biothreats as part of long-term takedown plots. That said, it is relatively easy to think of chronic bioweapons that at first glance would seem to at least be technically feasible. Ethno-specific viruses is an easy one. Many viruses already show some specificity in terms of what portion of a population they’ll attack (often the old, the young, and the immunologically infirm), and engineering ethno-specificity can be readily imagined. You carry the gene for Tay-Sachs? Fine, a virus (or a transposable element on a virus) could be engineered to seek out and insert into this allele. For a slightly more complex science fiction scenario, there is the possibility of binary weapons: two agents that spread inexorably through a population, but cause disease only when they meet up. Again, such a scenario has a basis in reality: mortality in the recent H1N1 influenza epidemic was apparently greatly abetted by Streptococcus co-infection, and there is still some question whether the great killer of the last century, the 1918 flu, may have had help from a commensal micro-organism.

Such fictions can be multiplied almost indefinitely, and indeed they already have. One way you know this stuff is bunk is its repetition by conspiracy theorists. HIV=1 was a man-made virus designed to kill blacks, and introduced via an innoculation program (despite the clear historical and phylogenetic antecedents for the zoonotic transfer of the virus). Genetically modified food is designed to make your immune systems weak and to give you allergies (despite the many studies to the contrary, and in contradiction of the common sense notion that every protein we eat is already a ‘xenobiotic’ that is broken down by the same digestive system). Vaccinations are not the greatest public health discovery of the last Millenium, they’re really meant to make your kids autistic.

While there may be less nonsensical opportunities for debilitation, they seem to be caught almost immediately. Low levels of melanine poisoning would seem to be a great way to slowly debilitate the American populace, but our pets served as early warning systems. Farm animals are also our friends where biosecurity is concerned. Prions in animal offal lead to mad-cow disease, and there is a tiny glint of statistical evidence that these infective conformations can cross into humans, possibly leading to all of us carnivores going ga-ga in 20 years or so. That said, the huge outcry has led to mad-cow seemingly being locked down, at least for the moment. I continue to worry about the ready supply of illicit drugs in the US, not because of the social costs (which are nonetheless serious, though you can argue that they’re running neck-and-neck with the social costs of eradication), but because of the opportunities for sabotage. Contaminants in street Demerol, and perhaps Ecstasy itself, have led to Parkinson’s-like diseases. These were quickly observed, and perhaps we should therefore think of drug abusers as our self-appointed, front-line guinea pigs. The realities of addiction make this a grotesque statement, but doesn’t make it less true. The wizards at Monsanto have made Roundup-ready seeds that are not only economically addictive, but that can contaminate adjacent crops. In a different world in which Monsanto was geared for world-domination rather than just monumental profit we might have to worry about what else was in those seeds … although recent breakthroughs in sequencing technology might make that more than a little bit difficult to hide.

What got me thinking about all of this was not all of these false alarms, but the opportunities afforded by new technologies, in particular in the burgeoning fields of epigenetics and metagenomics. I’ve recently had a chance to catch up a bit on epigenetics, and its Lamarckian reach is truly remarkable. Links between history, methylation, and suicide. Links to immune function. If it proves possible to engineer the pattern of epigenetic markers (and it will), then there may be awesome opportunities for changing physiological state in a way that does not necessarily involve genome modification in the conventional sense. Even more accessible will be changing the metagenome of the gut, which is proving increasingly tied to disease state and even mental health. Now, it would of course be easy to come up with diabolical plans worthy of Fleming’s foils. But that’s not the point: there may really be, in the near term, ways to improve the health of entire populations through engineering how we’re methylated (or how our histones are marked), and through what we lay down in our gut. Inevitably, there will be those (especially on the conspiracy theory side, which is sadly quite vocal, and which tends to stray into the great middle more often than not — see the election of Rand Paul for details) who will decry the possibilities. And thus we will sow the seeds of our own debilitation. For when you cannot advance, you of necessity decline, if only in comparison.


- originally posted on Sunday, February 6th, 2011