Force for good. Genomes of potential bioweapons such as anthrax should remain public, NRC found.

Keeping Genetic Codes Free

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

The threat of bioterror shouldn't stop scientists from freely sharing genome data, concludes a new report commissioned by the CIA and the National Science Foundation. Limiting public access to genome data on potential bioweapons is impractical and would do more scientific harm than good, says a panel of the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC) in a study released today.

The U.S. government typically requires all federally funded scientists to make their genome data public. Since scientists sequenced the first viral genome in 1975, they have released the genetic codes of more than 1100 viruses and 150 bacteria, including those of the dangerous pathogens that cause smallpox, anthrax, and the plague. In the wake of the October 2001 U.S. anthrax attacks, however, some analysts suggested restricting access to such data to make sure it didn't fall into the wrong hands. They worried that would-be bioterrorists might draw upon the growing mountain of gene sequence data in public databases to engineer new bioweapons, such as toxic bacteria that resist drugs or unusually infectious viruses.

But "open access is essential if we are to maintain the progress needed to stay ahead of those who would attempt to cause harm," says Stanley Falkow, a microbiologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who led the new study. It is unlikely that raw sequence data would help bioterrorists develop superweapons, the NRC panel said, and locking away information would harm efforts to develop new biodefenses and fight emerging diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome. Coming up with workable restrictions would be difficult, the panel added. The genomes of many dangerous pathogens are already in the public domain, and there is little agreement on what kinds of information should be placed off-limits. If the government needs to keep genomic secrets, it says, it should use its long-standing authority to classify information.

The panel's approach sits well with several scientists concerned about biosecurity. "This is the right decision, from the standpoints of both public health and security," says Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a bioweapons expert at the State University of New York's Purchase College. "Stringent restriction would pose unacceptable costs," agrees molecular biologist Richard Ebright of Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, adding that "there are no 'biohackers' using genome data in basements."

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