Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 08/2011

Analysis of the Threat of Genetically Modified Organisms for Biological Warfare

Jerry Warner, James Ramsbotham, Ewelina Tunia, James J. Valdes

May 2011

Institute for National Strategic Studies


This Defense & Technology Paper established an analytical framework for evaluating the threat posed by genetically-modified organisms, particularly those created using synthetic biology. The threat comprises an extremely diverse set of potential actors, objectives, targets, agent organisms and a wide range of practical approaches for acquiring, modifying and delivering threat organisms to their intended targets. The central question fn this study addresses the nature and scope of the threat, if any, posed by GMOs, to include the potential to develop completely de novo organisms or completely artificial abiotic systems. The analysis focuses on a catastrophic biological attack with a level of damage associated with biological warfare rather than bioterrorism. The paper lays out essential technical requirements and alternative approaches available for developing a practical threat GMO. The focus is on the engineering of novel single-cell microorganisms previously unknown in nature. The analysis takes into account the range of potential threat actors and objectives. The study concludes that the potential for corruption of biotechnology to catastrophic malevolent use is considerable and there are tangible opportunities for potential adversaries to acquire, modify and manufacture to scale a potential GMO pathogen. Also, development of a modified pathogen for use in a full scale direct catastrophic biological attack is feasible but it will most likely require the resources of a nation state or a comparably-resourced organization. Further efforts in concert with a science-based approach are needed to expand and utilize this analytical framework in order to better characterize the future threat from GMOs.