1. Call for action on US policy on biological weapons control
2. Scientists Fear Biotech Could Also Breed a Monster
3. Biopesticide and Bioweapons
4. $45.2 MILLION PROPOSED TO SAFEGUARD U.S. CROPS
1. Call for action on US policy on biological weapons control
Subject: Sunshine: Action: Help Bring US Bioweapons Policy to its Senses
The Sunshine Project (US)
3 October 2001
** Please distribute this notice **
This is a call for citizen action to encourage sensible US policy on biological weapons control. Please help with only a few minutes of your time. This e-mail action can be customized with a personal message to Colin Powell and other senior US officials.
The events of September 11th and their aftermath have dramatically underscored the need for better international controls on biological weapons. International negotiations to achieve this are at a critical juncture.
US diplomats are presently rejecting international measures to verify compliance with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. The US is not only refusing to cooperate, but as the agreement approached consensus the US began to actively block the rest of the world from adopting it.
The Bioweapons Convention is the world's best treaty protection against development of biological weapons. Without a verification agreement, the Bioweapons Convention will remain toothless and the world a more dangerous place.
So far, international diplomatic protests have not been effective. Public pressure is urgently needed to bring the Bush administration to its senses. Biological weapons control cannot be a secretive concern of elite government officials. Policy failures require citizen involvement. A new e-mail action at the Sunshine Project website enables anyone to write US Secretary of State Colin Powell and members of the US Congress to urge them to immediately send diplomats back to the bioweapons negotiating table with clear orders to quickly complete the Verification
Take action! You can make a difference. To send your letter, please visit our home page, or follow this direct link: http://www.sunshine-project.org/action/powell.nclk Please forward this message and invite your friends to do the same. Thank you!
2. Scientists Fear Miracle of Biotech Could Also Breed a Monster
Published on Tuesday, October 23, 2001 by Agence France Presse
PARIS -- The events of the past six weeks have led some biologists to fear that mankind's fast-growing store of genetic knowledge may be less of a treasure chest than a Pandora's box. By tweaking bacterial and viral DNA, a gene terrorist could create an agent far more devastating than the bugs featuring in the post-September 11 anthrax attacks. Efforts to build a tough verification protocol to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) have been blocked for years -- ironically, by the United States, which said the secrets of its pharmaceutical industry could be at risk from intrusion. Negotiations resume in Geneva in November.
Among the nightmares: antibiotic-resistant strains of plague, tuberculosis and intestinal germs; a genetically-modified killer flu; and pathogen "cocktails," such as a mixture of smallpox and Ebola. "In light of the September 11 tragedy, we can no longer afford to be complacent about the possibility of biological terrorism," warns a commentary published next month in the specialist journal Nature Genetics.
"The revolution in biology could be misused in offensive biological weapons programs, directed against human beings and their staple crops and livestock."
The 20th century saw seven countries by known count -- Britain, France, Germany, Iraq, Japan, the Soviet Union and the United States -- embark on programs to identify, manufacture and weaponize killer agents. But experts worry the next generation of these weapons will exploit knowledge about the genome, with calamitous effect. A couple of years from now, there may be as many as 70 pathogens whose genetic code has been cracked. The genome of cholera, leprosy, the plague and tuberculosis are already in the public domain, as is a food-poisoning bug, Staphylococcus aureus, that is becoming resistant to antibiotics.
DNA sequencing aims to encourage research into new drugs that prevent, block or reverse those diseases -- potentially, the greatest leap forward in medical history. But there is also fear that a bioterrorist with an advanced college degree, lots of money and a good laboratory could use this readily-available data, inserting or swapping genes in bacteria and viruses to create new, horrifyingly virulent agents. These fears pre-date the current anthrax alert. "Progress in biomedical science inevitably has a dark side, and potentiates the development of an entirely new class of weapons of mass destruction: genetically engineered pathogens," a US scientific thinktank, the JASON Group, warned in the late 1990s. These arms pose "extraordinary challenges for detection, mitigation and remediation."
There is no known risk of any such attack at present.
But the potential for one certainly exists. Indeed, there are at least two documented cases in which biologists have accidentally created a doomsday bug. One was a strain of the common intestinal bug Escherichia coli that was 32,000 times more resistant to the antibiotic cefotaxime than conventional strains. The superbug's creator was Willem Stemmer, chief scientist with Maxygen, a California pharmaceutical research firm, who was exploring the function of resistance genes in bacteria. He destroyed his invention in response to an appeal by the American Society for Microbiology.
In a case published last January, a pair of Australian scientists, Ron Jackson and Ian Ramshaw, unwitting created a vicious strain of mousepox, a cousin of smallpox, among laboratory mice. They, too, destroyed the virus and then went public with their findings to draw attention to the potential abuse of biotechnology.
If a new infectious weapon were unleashed, little could be done other than identify new cases and isolate them, itself a huge task in today's open, mobile society.
Claire Fraser, who works at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville, Maryland, and Malcolm Dando, a peace studies expert at Britain's Bradford University, say in the Nature Genetics commentary that the picture is not entirely gloomy. "The same advances in microbial genomics that could be used to produce bioweapons can also be used to set up countermeasures against them," they say.
One early advance could be a DNA chip capable of spotting any biowarfare agents, even if they contained genes slotted in from other species, thus providing early warning of an attack. And fast-growing knowledge about the genome and cell functions could help tailor new vaccines and antibiotics, although such drugs typically need several years of safety testing before being authorized for public use.
International cooperation and ethics training of civilian biologists are vital for strengthening the safeguards against bioterrorism, some say. Efforts to build a tough verification protocol to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) have been blocked for years -- ironically, by the United States, which said the secrets of its pharmaceutical industry could be at risk from intrusion. Negotiations resume in Geneva in November.
As for action by scientists themselves, some voices are calling for tougher vetting of research proposals and a greater effort to train students about potential dangers arising from civilian lab work. "It's time for biologists to begin asking what means we have to keep the technology from being used in subverted ways," says Harvard University molecular biologist Matthew Meselson.
Copyright © 2001 AFP
3. Biopesticide and Bioweapons
ISIS Report, October 23, 2001
Bacillus anthracis the cause of anthrax poisoning is currently a great concern because of its employment as a terror weapon. Bacillus thuringiensis is both a major pesticide and the source of the genes used to produce insect toxins in GM crops. A third bacterium, Bacillus cereus, is a common soil bacterium and a common cause of food poisoning. The three species of bacteria are closely related, differing mainly in their plasmids (plasmids are circular DNA molecules that contain genetic origins of replication that allow them to replicate independently of the chromosome). The plasmids of the three species may readily be transferred from one species to another . The toxin genes from the three species are located on the plasmids and the genes tend to cluster in 'islands' that sometimes are mobilized (caused to move) by lysogenic bacterial viruses (bacteriophages that integrate themselves into the bacterial genome or bacterial plasmid as prophage). The ready exchange of plasmids bearing toxin genes between the three species has raised some concern .
The virulence of B. anthracis depends on the presence of two large plasmids, strains lacking one or the other plasmid are not virulent. Plasmid X02 carries genes that make polymers of glutamic acid (one of twenty amino acids that make proteins). These glutamic acid polymers go on the cell surface to inhibit phagocytes, cells in the body that engulf and take in bacteria and digest them. Plasmid X01 carries the three toxin genes coding for edema factor, lethal factor and protective antigen .
The insect killing ability of B. thuringiensis is based on the presence of an island of toxin genes  on one of many (up to 17) plasmids in the bacterium . The strain, B. thuringiensis serovar israelensis, has a plasmid-borne prophage that is induced to multiply when the strain mates with phage-insensitive strains of B. thuringiensis or B. cereus .
The endotoxins of B. thuringiensis (bt toxins) are stored as inactive crystals in bacterial spores, which are activated in the insect gut to create pores on the cells of the insect gut, causing an inrush of water that bursts the cell. In the event that B. anthracis mated to transfer plasmids to B. thuringiensis, recombination could create plasmids bearing toxins both for anthrax and for killing insects. New strains of B. anthracis with unpredictable properties could arise.
The bt toxin genes are employed in crop genetic engineering. Currently, there has been little or no effort to evaluate the possible recombination between B. anthracis in the field and the endotoxin genes of crop plants. Such gene exchange could occur in the soil between GM plant debris and bacteria. Also, it is not unlikely that GM crops carrying anthrax genes could be produced either for vaccines or for bio-weapons.
There is an extensive history of the use of bio-warfare agents, and in recent years, bioterrorism has been a growing concern. An extensive biological warfare program in Iraq was discovered after the Gulf War of 1991. Revelations concerning the covert program in the former Soviet Union also attracted much public attention. The Rajneeshee Cult, an Indian religious group, contaminated restaurant salad bars in Oregon in 1984 with Salmonella typhimurium, and about 751 citizens were infected. The cult's motivation was to incapacitate voters in order to win a local election and to seize political control of Dallas and Wasco counties. Larry Wayne Harris wanted to alert Americans to the Iraqi biological warfare threat and sought a separate homeland for whites in the United States. He had links to Christian Identity and the Aryan Nation, a white supremacist group. Harris made vague threats against US federal officials on behalf of right-wing "patriot" groups. He obtained the B. anthracis vaccine strain and Yersinia pestis (plague bacteria), and reportedly, several other bacteria, and discussed the dissemination of biological warfare agents by means of crop duster aircraft and other methods. Harris was arrested in 1998 after he made threatening remarks to US officials and talked openly about biological warfare terrorism .
Developments in biotechnology makes it possible to greatly amplify the impact of traditional biowarfare agents and made the means to create bio-terror weapons available to a significant part of the population through training in genetic engineering.
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2. "Bacillus identity crisis" By A. Bouchie, Nature Biotech 2000, 18, 813.
3. Okinaka R, Cloud K, Hampton O, et al. Sequence and organization of X01, the large Bacillus anthracis plasmid harbouring the anthrax toxin genes. J Bacteriol 1999, 181, 6509-15
4. BenDov E, Nissan G, Pelleg N, Manasherab R, Bousiba S and Zaritsky A. Refined circular restriction map of the Bacillus thuingiensis subspisrealensis plasmid carrying the mosquito larvicidal genes. Plasmid 1999, 42, 186-93
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4. $45.2m PROPOSED TO SAFEGUARD U.S. CROPS WASHINGTON, DC, October 22, 2001 (ENS)
President George W. Bush has proposed the allocation of $45.2 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to strengthen the agency's defenses against biowarfare. Awareness of the threat to the U.S. food supply and the agricultural industry was heightened by the terrorist attacks on September 11. "The President's proposed emergency funding for USDA will help advance the next phase of our emergency preparedness activities and will help meet our critical infrastructure needs," said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. "We have taken the appropriate steps to date to ensure the critical needs for USDA are met, however, we must remain vigilant in protecting our nation's food and agriculture."
The funding proposed for the USDA would support: Enhanced security for USDA facilities ($17.2 million); Design and construction of a satellite facility at the USDA laboratory in Ames, Iowa for research activities ($14.1 million); Technical assistance to state, local, federal and private sector entities to improve biosecurity ($5.0 million); and Education and training to strengthen response mechanisms to potential food supply threats, improve data collection, and other biosecurity activities ($8.9 million). "USDA is committed to doing our part for homeland protection," said Veneman. "We must stand ready and ensure that we are prepared, coordinated, and able to respond should we face an emergency."
The USDA "has taken the necessary steps to ensure our programs and services are responsive to potential threats," Veneman said. "Our inspectors are on heightened awareness at ports of entry and in food processing plants. We have stepped up security at appropriate USDA facilities. We are coordinating with other federal agencies."
Prevention, detection and clean up methods for bioterrorism at the farm level must be found now to avoid human harm and economic devastation of the food and fiber supply, say researchers at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station. Dr. Neville Clarke, director of Texas A&M University's Center for Natural Resource Information Technology, said agricultural research into bioterrorism is meant "both to prevent attack and to offer rapid response to minimize consequences in case of terrorist action."
A proposal to establish a National Center for Countermeasures Against Agricultural Bioterrorism is being prepared at Texas A&M for consideration by the administration and Board of Regents. The proposal includes surveillance networking systems, satellite imaging technology, field and laboratory diagnostic capabilities using biotechnology, and an information system that could predict and track the spread following an attack.