Meet the Scientists on the Frontlines of Protecting Humanity from a Man-Made Pathogen
Jean Peccoud wasn't expecting an email from the FBI. He definitely wasn't expecting the agency to invite him to a meeting. "My reaction was, 'What did I do wrong to be on the FBI watch list?'" he recalls.
You use those blueprints for white-hat research—which is, indeed, why the open blueprints exist—or you can do the same for a black-hat attack.
He didn't know what the feds could possibly want from him. "I was mostly scared at this point," he says. "I was deeply disturbed by the whole thing."
But he decided to go anyway, and when he traveled to San Francisco for the 2008 gathering, the reason for the e-vite became clear: The FBI was reaching out to researchers like him—scientists interested in synthetic biology—in anticipation of the potential nefarious uses of this technology. "The whole purpose of the meeting was, 'Let's start talking to each other before we actually need to talk to each other,'" says Peccoud, now a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Colorado State University. "'And let's make sure next time you get an email from the FBI, you don't freak out."
Synthetic biology—which Peccoud defines as "the application of engineering methods to biological systems"—holds great power, and with that (as always) comes great responsibility. When you can synthesize genetic material in a lab, you can create new ways of diagnosing and treating people, and even new food ingredients. But you can also "print" the genetic sequence of a virus or virulent bacterium.
And while it's not easy, it's also not as hard as it could be, in part because dangerous sequences have publicly available blueprints. You use those blueprints for white-hat research—which is, indeed, why the open blueprints exist—or you can do the same for a black-hat attack. You could synthesize a dangerous pathogen's code on purpose, or you could unwittingly do so because someone tampered with your digital instructions. Ordering synthetic genes for viral sequences, says Peccoud, would likely be more difficult today than it was a decade ago.
"There is more awareness of the industry, and they are taking this more seriously," he says. "There is no specific regulation, though."
Trying to lock down the interconnected machines that enable synthetic biology, secure its lab processes, and keep dangerous pathogens out of the hands of bad actors is part of a relatively new field: cyberbiosecurity, whose name Peccoud and colleagues introduced in a 2018 paper.
Biological threats feel especially acute right now, during the ongoing pandemic. COVID-19 is a natural pathogen -- not one engineered in a lab. But future outbreaks could start from a bug nature didn't build, if the wrong people get ahold of the right genetic sequences, and put them in the right sequence. Securing the equipment and processes that make synthetic biology possible -- so that doesn't happen -- is part of why the field of cyberbiosecurity was born.
The Origin Story
It is perhaps no coincidence that the FBI pinged Peccoud when it did: soon after a journalist ordered a sequence of smallpox DNA and wrote, for The Guardian, about how easy it was. "That was not good press for anybody," says Peccoud. Previously, in 2002, the Pentagon had funded SUNY Stonybrook researchers to try something similar: They ordered bits of polio DNA piecemeal and, over the course of three years, strung them together.
Although many years have passed since those early gotchas, the current patchwork of regulations still wouldn't necessarily prevent someone from pulling similar tricks now, and the technological systems that synthetic biology runs on are more intertwined — and so perhaps more hackable — than ever. Researchers like Peccoud are working to bring awareness to those potential problems, to promote accountability, and to provide early-detection tools that would catch the whiff of a rotten act before it became one.
Peccoud notes that if someone wants to get access to a specific pathogen, it is probably easier to collect it from the environment or take it from a biodefense lab than to whip it up synthetically. "However, people could use genetic databases to design a system that combines different genes in a way that would make them dangerous together without each of the components being dangerous on its own," he says. "This would be much more difficult to detect."
After his meeting with the FBI, Peccoud grew more interested in these sorts of security questions. So he was paying attention when, in 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services — now helping manage the response to COVID-19 — created guidance for how to screen synthetic biology orders, to make sure suppliers didn't accidentally send bad actors the sequences that make up bad genomes.
Guidance is nice, Peccoud thought, but it's just words. He wanted to turn those words into action: into a computer program. "I didn't know if it was something you can run on a desktop or if you need a supercomputer to run it," he says. So, one summer, he tasked a team of student researchers with poring over the sentences and turning them into scripts. "I let the FBI know," he says, having both learned his lesson and wanting to get in on the game.
Peccoud later joined forces with Randall Murch, a former FBI agent and current Virginia Tech professor, and a team of colleagues from both Virginia Tech and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, on a prototype project for the Department of Defense. They went into a lab at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and assessed all its cyberbio-vulnerabilities. The lab develops and produces prototype vaccines, therapeutics, and prophylactic components — exactly the kind of place that you always, and especially right now, want to keep secure.
"We were creating wiki of all these nasty things."
The team found dozens of Achilles' heels, and put them in a private report. Not long after that project, the two and their colleagues wrote the paper that first used the term "cyberbiosecurity." A second paper, led by Murch, came out five months later and provided a proposed definition and more comprehensive perspective on cyberbiosecurity. But although it's now a buzzword, it's the definition, not the jargon, that matters. "Frankly, I don't really care if they call it cyberbiosecurity," says Murch. Call it what you want: Just pay attention to its tenets.
A Database of Scary Sequences
Peccoud and Murch, of course, aren't the only ones working to screen sequences and secure devices. At the nonprofit Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, for instance, scientists are working on solutions that balance the openness inherent to science and the closure that can stop bad stuff. "There's a challenge there that you want to enable research but you want to make sure that what people are ordering is safe," says the organization's Neeraj Rao.
Rao can't talk about the work Battelle does for the spy agency IARPA, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, on a project called Fun GCAT, which aims to use computational tools to deep-screen gene-sequence orders to see if they pose a threat. It can, though, talk about a twin-type internal project: ThreatSEQ (pronounced, of course, "threat seek").
The project started when "a government customer" (as usual, no one will say which) asked Battelle to curate a list of dangerous toxins and pathogens, and their genetic sequences. The researchers even started tagging sequences according to their function — like whether a particular sequence is involved in a germ's virulence or toxicity. That helps if someone is trying to use synthetic biology not to gin up a yawn-inducing old bug but to engineer a totally new one. "How do you essentially predict what the function of a novel sequence is?" says Rao. You look at what other, similar bits of code do.
"We were creating wiki of all these nasty things," says Rao. As they were working, they realized that DNA manufacturers could potentially scan in sequences that people ordered, run them against the database, and see if anything scary matched up. Kind of like that plagiarism software your college professors used.
Battelle began offering their screening capability, as ThreatSEQ. When customers -- like, currently, Twist Bioscience -- throw their sequences in, and get a report back, the manufacturers make the final decision about whether to fulfill a flagged order — whether, in the analogy, to give an F for plagiarism. After all, legitimate researchers do legitimately need to have DNA from legitimately bad organisms.
"Maybe it's the CDC," says Rao. "If things check out, oftentimes [the manufacturers] will fulfill the order." If it's your aggrieved uncle seeking the virulent pathogen, maybe not. But ultimately, no one is stopping the manufacturers from doing so.
Beyond that kind of tampering, though, cyberbiosecurity also includes keeping a lockdown on the machines that make the genetic sequences. "Somebody now doesn't need physical access to infrastructure to tamper with it," says Rao. So it needs the same cyber protections as other internet-connected devices.
Scientists are also now using DNA to store data — encoding information in its bases, rather than into a hard drive. To download the data, you sequence the DNA and read it back into a computer. But if you think like a bad guy, you'd realize that a bad guy could then, for instance, insert a computer virus into the genetic code, and when the researcher went to nab her data, her desktop would crash or infect the others on the network.
Something like that actually happened in 2017 at the USENIX security symposium, an annual programming conference: Researchers from the University of Washington encoded malware into DNA, and when the gene sequencer assembled the DNA, it corrupted the sequencer's software, then the computer that controlled it.
"This vulnerability could be just the opening an adversary needs to compromise an organization's systems," Inspirion Biosciences' J. Craig Reed and Nicolas Dunaway wrote in a paper for Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, included in an e-book that Murch edited called Mapping the Cyberbiosecurity Enterprise.
Where We Go From Here
So what to do about all this? That's hard to say, in part because we don't know how big a current problem any of it poses. As noted in Mapping the Cyberbiosecurity Enterprise, "Information about private sector infrastructure vulnerabilities or data breaches is protected from public release by the Protected Critical Infrastructure Information (PCII) Program," if the privateers share the information with the government. "Government sector vulnerabilities or data breaches," meanwhile, "are rarely shared with the public."
"What I think is encouraging right now is the fact that we're even having this discussion."
The regulations that could rein in problems aren't as robust as many would like them to be, and much good behavior is technically voluntary — although guidelines and best practices do exist from organizations like the International Gene Synthesis Consortium and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Rao thinks it would be smart if grant-giving agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation required any scientists who took their money to work with manufacturing companies that screen sequences. But he also still thinks we're on our way to being ahead of the curve, in terms of preventing print-your-own bioproblems: "What I think is encouraging right now is the fact that we're even having this discussion," says Rao.
Peccoud, for his part, has worked to keep such conversations going, including by doing training for the FBI and planning a workshop for students in which they imagine and work to guard against the malicious use of their research. But actually, Peccoud believes that human error, flawed lab processes, and mislabeled samples might be bigger threats than the outside ones. "Way too often, I think that people think of security as, 'Oh, there is a bad guy going after me,' and the main thing you should be worried about is yourself and errors," he says.
Murch thinks we're only at the beginning of understanding where our weak points are, and how many times they've been bruised. Decreasing those contusions, though, won't just take more secure systems. "The answer won't be technical only," he says. It'll be social, political, policy-related, and economic — a cultural revolution all its own.
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.