Whenever I review a manuscript for the American Society for Microbiology journals, a box must be checked as to whether the submitted paper might have dual use. Dual use means, loosely, any technology that might serve both peaceful and military uses. I hope I never check that box by mistake (it happens) because, in recent years, the quickest way to incite a panic is to mention “dual use” in the same breath as biological research. That may be because biology is increasingly perceived to be easy kids stuff, as suggested by last night’s interview. Fortunately, in real life it’s not nearly that simple.
This year’s big dual-use story is of course the ferret flu. Some researchers in the Netherlands, including Ron Fouchier, evolved a strain of avian flu that could be passed between ferrets by airborne transmission. Why ferrets? Because ferret nasal passages have cell-surface receptors that resemble those of humans. So ferret noses are seen as a good “model” for human noses.
Of course, papers on flu are a dime a dozen–more like a million bucks a dozen, there’s so much grant money to go around. So to build some buzz for this one, Fouchier hyped it to Science interviewers, calling it “one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.”
Unfortunately he reckoned without the consequences of somebody checking that box, or equivalent, when he submitted his paper. For the first time, the US government actually demanded redaction of key data from the paper–that is, the key mutations that occurred in the influenza virus genome that allowed airborne transmission. So the scientists frantically backpedalled, insisting that no, this virus wasn’t really that bad; it only killed ferrets when transmitted by a swab (nose-to-nose) as opposed to a sneeze. The sneezed-upon ferrets got lethargic, with ruffled fur, but apparently survived the experience (at least until they all got “sacrificed,” as most lab animals eventually do.)
There followed months of controversy, keeping numerous journalists employed. Finally, in an unusually magnanimous show of generosity, Science not only published the full paper–the journal provided free public access to the paper with several earnest commentaries. Yes, you can read the entire original ferret flu report yourself, including figures showing cute ferret noses. (See Figure 2, Experiment 3.) I wonder how many readers will run off to the pet store.
For most of us everyday biologists, alas, dual use is much harder to discern. In 1943 Arthur Galston completed a PhD thesis on a chemical that made soybeans flower earlier. At higher concentrations, he observed that the chemical caused early defoliation (loss of leaves). This observation was picked up by someone at the Pentagon and led to development of Agent Orange for use in Vietnam. Twenty years later, Galston found himself lobbying to stop the use of the chemical and to study its human toxicology. Who knows what dual use lies unsuspected on our benchtops today?