Monday, May 10, 2010


The Scientist | You may soon be visited by an FBI agent, or a scientist acting on behalf of one. Here's why.

They tried to fit in at this year’s iGEM synthetic biology competition. They really tried. Piers Millet from the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs sported a white hoodie with an iGEM insignia that was slightly too tight. Beside him, Lindsay Hartmann, a Weapons of Mass Destruction analyst with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, wore nails painted black—the look of a rebellious college kid. The bracelet with charms of a badge, handcuffs, and gun, however, gave her away.

Around them, student competitors whooshed by before the next round of presentations inside the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Stata Center. Some headed for the cookies and juice trays. Some gossiped about the 11-year-old who made a liquid handling robot out of Lego bricks. A duo of artists working with a team from Cambridge shuttled around a suitcase of fake, neon-spotted feces—replicas, they said, of a digestive diagnostics tool from an imagined future.

In the midst of the giddy confusion, the agents handed out brochures for a newly invigorated FBI initiative. Its goal: Collaborate with the science community to secure biology from those who would use it to harm people, by engineering a synthetic epidemic, for instance. Only, for the campaign to succeed, the FBI will have to bridge an enormous rift between the science community and law enforcement.

“I’m here to deliver a message,” Millet told students during a presentation. “Securing synthetic biology is not my job, it’s your job. Our job is to give you guys the tools to do that.” The tools were printed on the back of every brochure—56 direct phone lines to the regional offices of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, an FBI division devoted to handling WMD threats. The agents asked students and biologists alike to call if they spotted anything “suspicious” in their labs.

Titled the Biological Sciences Outreach Program, the campaign to start a dialogue with biologists about potential biosecurity risks from their science has begun with the synthetic biology community and is spreading from there. It’s being praised by biosecurity experts for its foresight. What scientists think, however, is a different story.