For the first time in over 40 years, scientists have discovered a new form of the toxin responsible for botulism. But they’re keeping many of the details about it a secret for fear that it could be turned into a deadly bioweapon — prompting some scientists to warn that this action can only hold further research back.
As Nell Greenfieldboyce from NPR reports, new research published by Jason Barash and Stephen Arnon in two separate papers have described a novel strain of Clostridium botulinum that produces two different forms of the potent botulinum toxins. Their findings now appear in the Journal of Infectious Diseases — minus some very important details.
Normally, the journal’s editors would expect the authors to disclose the genetic sequences needed to make the toxin. But the researchers refused for fear of the potential security risk. According to NPR, the editors ultimately agreed to publish the papers without the information, but only until new treatments were developed.
But how can new treatments be developed if other scientists are denied access to this information?
That said, Barash and Arnon have a right to be worried. Back in the 1990s, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo tried to release the botulinum toxin in downtown Tokyo. And as Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy warned back in 2005, genetic scripts like these are recipes for destruction.
Botulinum toxin, which was first discovered in improperly handled meat products, is the most toxic substance known to humankind. As little as 100 nanograms of pure botulinum toxin can kill the average human. The onset of symptoms varies from six hours to ten days, with the toxin leading to paralysis of muscles involved in breathing and death.
The new episode is reminiscent of Nature’s decision to publish the details of an experiment describing how the avian flu can be modified into a human-contagious form. After a temporary ban on further research, the moratorium was lifted so that biologists could preemptively work on a vaccine or cure. And relatedly, biologists in China recently created a batch of designer viruses by selectively combining genes from the H5N1 bird flu virus with those of the H1N1 swine flu strain — again just to see if it could be done, and if so, to take the appropriate measures and precautions.