Biological existential risks

16 January 2018

Interview with

Christian Boehm, University of Cambridge

Researchers at the Centre for the study of existential risk, in Cambridge, given the rapid pace at which sciences like molecular biology are advancing, set out to identify the leading biological threats we are likely to face in the near future. Christian Boehm is one of the authors of the new report...

Christian - Basically what the Center for the Study of extension risk have done this in the previous year bring together an internationally renowned team of 27 experts in biological engineering in order to identify future trends in the field which fulfil three criteria, in essence. And these three criteria: First, the issue needed to be considered emerging but not widely known beyond a specialist field. Secondly, the issue needed to be scientifically plausible. And third, the issue needed to be of potential global impact and so we started off with a long list of 70 potential emerging issues and use a structured and iterative approach to narrow down to the 20 which we outline in more detail in the final report.

Chris - And just briefly can you pick on some of those 20 and tell us why they made it to that shortlist and give us a flavour of, of why they deserve to be there.

Christian - Unfortunately I may not have the time to talk about all the 20 issues in detail but there were some overarching themes if you will, which touched upon several of these issues and one of those that I am particularly excited about is a shift in the nature of biology from a natural science towards an information science. And this has to do with the fact that the costs of sequencing and synthesis of DNA is falling rapidly. Since 2003 the cost of sequencing DNA has come down a million fold and that means that the intrinsic value of any DNA sequence, primary not any more lies in a physical sample of the organism was derived from but rather in the information about the function this fragment of DNA has or the product it encodes. This has a variety of implications for both academic research and the future of our economy.

Chris - And so what do you advocate? Given that dramatic landscape shift, what are you saying we should do instead?

Christian -Well with respect to cyber-biosecurity which I think will be an emerging subdiscipline in biological engineering, it will become increasingly important to protect digital biological sequence information and several strategies for managing these risks. One could consider, first the implementation of industry-wide standards for information security. Secondly, potentially the recognition of public sequenced databases as critical infrastructure. And third, the collaboration with information technology experts when developing new biotechnology tools and services.

Chris - So having highlighted these particular priorities where do you hope this will take you next?

Christian - Our horizon scanning exercise was just a first step. Because of the broad nature of the issues which have touched upon covering issues relevant to health, food supply, energy, but also access ownership, benefit sharing, and many more there really should be follow up exercises, ideally in collaboration with policymakers to prioritize the most actionable items and explore them in more detail to then hopefully come to a fruitful collaboration between scientists and policymakers.

Chris - Many of the things that you've highlighted in the manuscript though, they're pretty big problems. You've mentioned things relevant to say, climate change and that kind of thing which already have a lot of attention focused on them. So to what extent is this highlighting new concerns, and to what extent is it just sort of cheerleading saying "yes we really do need to worry about these things that we know are important."

Christian - Well of course especially the issues which become relevant in the near term. That is approximately the next five years, may be well known generally speaking such as we're all well aware that climate change may impose a substantial threat to humanity, or that we need to substantially boost our food production in order to feed up to 9 billion people 'til 2050. But this report will highlight specific technologies and developments within biological engineering such as artificial photosynthesis or the genetic engineering of chloroplasts which will likely make a difference in addressing these problems.


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