Genomics and future biological weapons: the need for preventive action by the biomedical community

There is an increasing concern within both the scientific and security communities that the ongoing revolution in biology has great potential to be misused in offensive biological weapons programs. In light of the 11 September tragedy, we can no longer afford to be complacent about the possibility of biological terrorism. Here we review the major relevant trends in genomics research and development, and discuss how these capabilities might be misused in the design of new bioweapons. We also discuss how the breakthroughs that have come from the genomics revolution may be used to enhance detection, protection and treatment so that biological warfare agents are never used.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1

    The White House. Remarks by the President in Tax Celebration Event, Barrett Farm, Dallas Center, Iowa, 8 June 2001.

  2. 2

    Lederberg, J. (ed.) Biological Weapons: Limiting the Threat. (MIT Press, Cambridge,1999).

  3. 3

    British Medical Association. Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity. (Harwood Academic, London, 1999).

  4. 4

    Dando, M. R. Defense Analysis, 15, 43–62 (1999).

  5. 5

    Nixdorff, K., Brauburger, J. & Hahlbohm, D. The biotechnology revolution: the science and applications. in Verification of the Biological And Toxin Weapons Convention NATO ASI Series, I. Disarmament Technologies Vol. 32 (eds Dando, M.R., Pearson, G.S. & Tóth, T.). 77–124 (Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht, 2000).

  6. 6

    Zilinskas, R.A. (ed.) Biological Warfare: Modern Offense and Defense. (Lynne Rienner, Boulder, 2000).

  7. 7

    Cohen, W. Proliferation: Threat and Response. (Department of Defense, Washington, D.C., 1997).

  8. 8

    Zilinskas, R.A. in Biological Warfare: Modern Offense and Defense (ed. Zilinskas, R.A.) 247–254 (Lynne Rienner, Boulder, 2000).

  9. 9

    Block, S.M. Living nightmares: biological threats enabled by molecular biology. in The New Terror: Facing the Threat of Biological and Chemical Weapons (eds Drell, S.D., Sofaer, A.D. & Wilson, G.D.) 39–75 (Hoover Institution, Stanford, 1999).

  10. 10

    Pearson, G.S. New Scientific and Technological Developments of Relevance to the Fifth Review Conference. Review Conference Paper No. 3, Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford (2001).

  11. 11

    Dando, M.R. The New Biological Weapons: Threat, Proliferation and Control (Lynne Rienner, Boulder, 2001).

  12. 12

    Nowak, R. Disaster in the making: an engineered mouse virus leaves us one step away from the ultimate bioweapon. New Scientist 19 January, 4–5 (2001).

  13. 13

    Jackson, R.J. et al. Expression of mouse interleukin-4 by a recombinant ectromelia virus suppresses cytolytic lymphocyte response and overcomes genetic resistance to mousepox. J. Virol. 75, 1205–1210 (2001).

  14. 14

    Kuwabara, P.E. & Coulson, A. RNAi—prospects for a general technique for determining gene function. Parasitology Today 16, 347–349 (2000).

  15. 15

    Bloom, B.R. Genome sequences. A microbial minimalist. Nature 378, 236 (1995).

  16. 16

    United Nations. Final Declaration. Fourth Review Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, BWC/CONF.IV/9, Geneva (1996).

  17. 17

    Chizhikov, V., Rasooly, A., Chumakov, K. & Levy, D.D. Microarray analysis of microbial virulence factors. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 67, 3258–3563 (2001).

  18. 18

    DeRisi, J. et al. Genome microarray analysis of transcriptional activation in multi-drug resistant yeast mutants. FEBS Lett. 470, 156–160 (2000).

  19. 19

    Kolkman, J.A. & Stemmer, W.P. Directed evolution of proteins by exon shuffling. Nature Biotechnol. 19, 423–428 (2001).

  20. 20

    Salama, N. et al. A whole-genome microarray reveals genetic diversity among Helicobacter pylori strains. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 97, 14668–14673 (2000).

  21. 21

    Tettelin, H. et al. Complete genome sequence of virulent isolate of Streptococcus pneumoniae. Science 293, 498–506 (2001).

  22. 22

    Pizza, M. et al. Identification of vaccine candidates against serogroup B meningococcus by whole-genome sequencing. Science 287, 1816–1820 (2000).

  23. 23

    Wizemann, T.M. et al. Use of a whole genome approach to identify vaccine molecules affording protection against Streptococcus pneumoniae infection. Infect. Immun. 69, 1593–1598 (2001).

  24. 24

    Schmid, M.B. Novel approaches to the discovery of antimicrobial agents. Curr. Opin. Chem. Biol. 2, 529–234 (1998).

  25. 25

    Cummings, C.A. & Relman, D.A. Using DNA microarrays to study host-microbe interactions. Emerg. Infect. Dis. 6, 513–525 (2000).

  26. 26

    Blader, I.J., Manger, I.D. & Boothroyd, J.C. Microarray analysis reveals previously unknown changes in Toxoplasma gondii-infected human cells. J. Biol. Chem. 276, 24223–24231 (2001).

  27. 27

    Hill, A.V. Genetics and genomics of infectious disease susceptibility. Br. Med. Bull. 55, 401–413 (1999).

  28. 28

    Thursz, M. Genetic susceptibility in infectious diseases. Biotechnol. Genet. Eng. Rev. 17, 253–264 (2000).

  29. 29

    Marshall, E. DNA studies challenge the meaning of race. Science 282, 654–655 (1998).

  30. 30

    Li, W-H. & Sadler, L.A. Low nucleotide diversity in man. Genetics 129, 513–523 (1991).

  31. 32

    Jorde, L.B. et al. The distribution of human genetic diversity: a comparison of mitochondrial, autosomal, and Y-chromosome data. Am. J. Human Genet. 66, 979–988 (2000).

  32. 33

    Wheelis, M. & Dando, M.R. New technology and future developments in biological warfare. Disarmament Forum 4, 43–50 (2000).

  33. 34

    Pearson, G.S., Dando, M.R. & Sims, N.A. The US Rejection of the Composite Protocol: A Huge Mistake Based on Illogical Assessments. Evaluation Paper No. 22, Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford (2001).

  34. 35

    Sims, N.A. Four decades of missed opportunities to strengthen the BWC: 2001 too? Disarmament Diplomacy June, 15–21 (2001).

  35. 36

    Kelle, A., Dando, M.R. & Nixdorff, K. The role of biotechnology in countering BTW agents. NATO Science Series, I. Disarmament Technologies Vol. 34 (Kluwer Academica, Dordrecht 2001).

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Claire M. Fraser.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Fraser, C., Dando, M. Genomics and future biological weapons: the need for preventive action by the biomedical community. Nat Genet 29, 253–256 (2001).

Download citation

Further reading