When does a scientific conference warrant the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security? When the topic is synthetic biology.
Both of those federal agencies turned out on May 1 to monitor the proceedings here at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — and a representative from the F.B.I. even spoke. Their attendance, as well as a lively discussion about the science and ethics of synthetic biology, sheds light on how much attention is being focused on this rapidly advancing field of science.
Synthetic biology, a 20-year-old engineering pursuit that tries to extend the genetic code with artificial nucleotides, promises to produce advances in medical therapies, materials and biological computing akin to animal and human cognition.
These kinds of concerns would explain the presence of the federal law enforcement representatives. In his own presentation, the F.B.I. agent, Carmine Nigro, bluntly warned, “These technologies do not just pose a risk to individual buildings or cities, but if cleverly deployed, can reduce our population by significant percentages.”