February 24, 2012

On Guard Against WMD

 Inside the Biological Countermeasures Unit, Part 2

DNA Strand Illustration

Part 2 of an interview with Special Agent Edward You of the Biological Countermeasures Unit in the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Directorate.

Q: What other responsibilities do WMD coordinators have?

Mr. You: At the local level, WMD coordinators act as resources for our partners and they also engage in threat assessments and investigations. Coordinators are dedicated professionals who have their own career path within the FBI and they go through an extensive training and certification program. With regard to training, we have partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide training locally, regionally, and internationally. We are able to educate the scientific community about threats and provide situational awareness about security issues that may not have been considered. In turn, the scientific community advises law enforcement about the current state of the field and assists us in identifying over-the-horizon risks. The life sciences field is advancing so rapidly that it is difficult to stay current. We rely on the expertise of our business and academic partners to ensure that our agency is addressing issues appropriately and effectively. Synthetic biology is a case in point.

Q: What is synthetic biology?

Mr. You: It is the application of engineering and computer science principles to the life sciences. It is an evolutionary step in techniques in DNA sequencing and synthesis that are used to modify naturally occurring organisms, such as yeast and bacteria, and “reprogram” them to impart novel functions not normally found in nature. For example, synthetic biology allows you to program bacteria to efficiently produce bio-diesel fuel, medicines, and building materials.

Q: Why is synthetic biology important in terms of WMD?

Mr. You: Consider a company that produces synthetic DNA. They have the ability to generate the necessary genetic information to potentially produce bacteria and viruses, even high-consequence biological agents—such as Ebola or Bacillus anthracis (anthrax)—that are regulated by the U.S. government. Companies have adopted screening measures to prevent uncertified individuals from purchasing genetic information for these high-consequence agents. Through our outreach efforts and subsequent federal guidance, companies now know to contact our WMD coordinators when they encounter suspicious orders. The FBI can conduct further assessments, provide information back to the companies, and initiate investigations if warranted. As a result, industry was very happy to have a vehicle for reporting and vetting suspicious activity. We really filled a need with this program, and it has been very successful.

Q: How will you continue to be successful going forward?

Mr. You: We will continue working with industry and the scientific community. Because we provide a service and act as a resource for our partners, our outreach has grown at a rapid pace—we can’t keep up with demand in terms of speaking engagements we are invited to or contributions to biosecurity policymaking. When we started our outreach program five years ago, we were out knocking on doors in the scientific community, trying to spread our message. Now they are inviting us in. They obviously they see the value of what we’re doing to protect the public and the scientific process.

- Part 1 of the Interview