Dual-Use Aspects of Plant Biotechnology

Some areas of agricultural biotechnology pose a risk of deliberate misuse for hostile purposes:

  • At least in theory, biopharming could be used by someone with malicious intent to produce large quantities of protein toxins or “bioregulators” (natural body chemicals that are toxic at high doses) for bioweapons purposes. Using plants as factories would reduce the risk of discovery because GM plants cannot be easily distinguished from non-GM plants. Such transgenic crops could potentially contaminate the food supply, posing an acute threat to human health.

  • A variety of plant pathogens have been studied as potential biocontrol agents to eliminate weeds without the need for toxic herbicides. Because most weed pathogens are not sufficiently host-specific or virulent in their natural form, methods have been developed to enhance their virulence so they can compete with chemical herbicides. For example, mutant strains of plant pathogens such as Fusarium mold overproduce certain amino acids that inhibit the growth and development of parasitic weeds.8 The same techniques might be used to enhance anti-crop agents, however.

  • Biocontrol agents, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi, have been studied for eradicating illicit drug crops, such as coca and opium poppy. Although these applications are peaceful, the same methods used to enhance the virulence of natural plant pathogens might be misused for illicit attacks against food crops.

  • Plant pathogens such as Agrobacterium tumefaciens are highly efficient at inserting foreign genes into plant cells. At least in theory, such plant pathogens might be genetically engineered to render them capable of causing disease in humans.

Although these dual-use dilemmas cannot be eliminated, the associated risks might be managed in various ways.

What are some of the ethical issues scientists should be aware of/concerned about with regards to research and emerging technology? - Jacqueline Fletcher