Vignette 1: Biobots in the hands of terrorists!

Scientists have developed a method to print millimeter-to-centimeter scale biological microrobots or ‘bio-bots.’ These ‘creatures’ consist of soft-polymer materials and living cells. They can be made in scales of 1 biobot per minute, and thousands can be made in a few hours. They are composed of three types of cells: ‘sensing cells’ that can sense the presence of neuro-toxins in water supplies; ‘actuator cells’ that enable them to move and walk towards the source of the toxins; and ‘factory cells’ that can release antidotes to neutralize the harmful effect of the toxins. These biobot creatures can survive for months at a time and can be very beneficial for the society.

A group of terrorists obtained the blueprints of the design and fabrication methods and altered the cells to perform different functions. While leaving the sensing cells the same, they altered the design for the biobot to move away from the region of the source, and they also changed the factory cells to produce the same toxin that was sensed by the biobot. This means that if the biobot senses a toxin, it will begin to further produce it and spread it around. The end result being that the effect of the harmful toxin initially found is amplified by the biobot and results in damage that is many orders more than the initial toxin concentration. Clearly the biobot is being used for a harmful cause. The terrorists used this as a threat in exchange for money.

Questions:

  1. What measures could have been taken to ensure that the appropriate elements of the biobot creation do not reach the terrorists? What are those critical elements?
  2. What ethical issues does this raise that the researchers should consider while doing the initial research?
  3. Should the researchers publish or patent the designs and ideas?
  4. What are the lessons learned?
  5. Any comments: