Genetic Weapons Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Genetic Weapons

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Starting with the stick and continuing through to biological weapons, people have always sought to inflict harm on others, either because one group's views conflict with another, or because of a disagreement over who possesses something, such as land. Sadly, the race to build new and more terrible weapons shows no sign of slowing down.

The 21st Century may witness the utilisation of biotechnology for less than benign purposes. Through the biotechnology revolution of the 1970s, many advances were made (and quite a few profits as well). However, as Einstein discovered, innovation can be used for both good and for evil.

Genetic engineering has raised the possibility of the creation of new disease 'vectors'1. Viruses, such as influenza, could be combined with another agent, like the plague or anthrax, to create a highly infectious, respirable agent. Such genetically-altered pathogens2 are known as 'recombinant organisms'. The ability to splice the genes of diseases in this way could make the dissemination of pathogens much simpler. Coupled with this, there have been advances in the understanding of infectious disease mechanisms and of microbial genetics. Such knowledge may, possibly, give rise to the creation of 'novel' agents which could have their most fundamental aspects dictated by the designer.

During the early 1990s, Western intelligence agencies alleged that the USSR was carrying out research in this area, including the genetic manipulation of smallpox.

Perhaps more significantly, an improved comprehension of the human immune system and other disease mechanisms will reveal the circumstances that cause individual susceptibility to infectious diseases. Future biological weapons research may be able to pinpoint the genetic characteristics of both the target population and the potential agent. Hypothetically, this may allow the development of agents that target individuals with specific genetic properties. Such agents do not yet exist but it has been a hypothetical proposition since the early 1980s.

It has been reported that the Israeli Nes Tziyona biological warfare research establishment is attempting to develop an 'ethnic' biological weapon. It has also been alleged that similar research was carried out in South Africa under the apartheid regime. The implications of such a development are difficult to overstate. An ethnically-targeted biological weapon would revolutionise the entire concept of biological warfare.

Genetic weapons may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but in 1999, the British Medical Association published a report highlighting the dangers posed by the potential development of such weapons.

1Means of transmission.2An agent that causes disease, often a living micro-organism such as a bacterium or fungus.

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