How will genomics and genetic technology change the threat?

We are in the midst of a revolution in biology that began with recombinant DNA technology in the 1970s, and is continuing with the rapidly accelerating technologies of genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics, etc. This revolution is transforming the sciences that underlie the development of chemical and biological weapons, as well as protection against such weapons. With regard to anti-agricultural biological agents, some of the implications are as follows:

Genomics will facilitate protection of plants and animals against biological attack

Genomic technologies will make the development of new vaccines, new pesticides, new diagnostic reagents, and new genetic varieties easier and more rapid. This should facilitate a coordinated defense of agriculture against biological attack, at least for countries willing to make this a priority and spend the necessary funds.

Genomics makes genotype-specific weapons possible.

The emerging sciences of genomics and proteomics are already beginning to transform biology and medicine. This will continue, at an accelerating pace. One outcome will be the possibility of constructing genotype-specific biological control or weapons agents. Although there has been much concern about the possibility of ãethnic weaponsä targeting specific groups of humans, the likelihood is that this will prove impossible (due to the high and increasing amount of intragroup genetic heterogeneity).Ê However, equivalent weapons targeting specific agricultural varieties is a very real possibility.

Agriculture is highly vulnerable to genotype-specific weapons

Agriculture, particularly in many developed countries, has several properties that make it vulnerable to attack with genotype-specific weapons. Typically it employs monocropping of large acreages with genetically identical cultivars, and high-density husbandry of genetically inbred animal strains. These agronomic practices reduce the genetic variability that makes populations resistant to genotype-specific weapons, and it creates conditions (large, dense populations) that facilitate disease spread.

High-tech agent design is an option available only to sophisticated players÷eg states and multinational corporations.

At least for the near future, the construction of novel toxin weapons or genetically engineered microbes as genotype-specific weapons would require a substantial scientific infrastructure, ranging from molecular biology to genomics to agronomy. It is unlikely that most terrorist groups could assemble the necessary expertise and materials for this. Thus genotype-specific weapons are likely to remain accessible only to states (and possibly their sub-state clients), and to large agricultural corporations.