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Seeking Security: Pathogens, Open Access, and Genome Databases
into a gray zone where the benefits of publication may not outweigh the dangers. Any scientist working to develop new treatments for naturally occurring infectious diseases can tap the power of genomics and its globally accessible databases and analytic tools, but so could a malefactor trying to engineer enhanced pathogens for use as biological weapons. Hence, scientists and policy-makers are confronted with the challenging question of how to mitigate the risk of bioterrorism and still foster the research community’s ability to counter current and future biological threats, whether naturally occurring or malevolently deployed.
GENOME RESEARCH IN AN AGE OF TERRORISM
The attacks on September 11, 2001, and the later deadly anthrax letters have focused increased national and international attention on the threat of terrorism. On October 8, 2003, the National Academies released a report, Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism (NRC, 2003a), which examined the dual-use problem in life-science research. The author committee, chaired by Gerald Fink of the Whitehead Institute, offered recommendations on how to confront the potential for misuse of biological agents and technologies without unduly limiting progress in the life sciences. The report proposed modifications of the system of review of biological experiments and stressed the importance of addressing research in subjects of concern early and of educating scientists to be aware of the risks and benefits associated with their research and how to balance them responsibly. The committee recognized the importance of open communication in scientific research as a fundamental practice crucial to continued progress despite the fact that it might make the data accessible to those intent on misuse. A reliance “on self-governance by scientists and scientific journals to review publications for their potential national security risks” was recommended, and a number of major journals that publish life-science research have already committed to implementing such a review process (Atlas et al., 2003a,b,c).
Genome data, the focus of this report, occupy a unique position in the dual-use dilemma in that they are a source of raw material that, although not inherently dangerous, can be enabling for potentially destructive agendas. Furthermore, the culture of genomics is unique in its evolution into a global web of tools and information. The major Internet-based data repositories have policies that mandate free, unfettered, and anonymous access, and most scientific journals require that genome data be deposited into accessible databases as a prerequisite for publication. With the exception of rare cases in which information is classified for national security purposes, the U.S. government itself requires that data, including genome data, resulting from federally funded research be made publicly avail-