SECRECY NEWS
from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2011, Issue No. 5
January 13, 2011

Secrecy News Blog: http://www.fas.org/blog/secrecy/

JASONS PONDER MILITARY ROLE IN GENE RESEARCH

The technology for sequencing human DNA is advancing so rapidly and the cost is dropping so quickly that the number of individuals whose DNA has been mapped is expected to grow "from hundreds of people (current) to millions of people (probably within three years)," according to a new report to the Pentagon from the JASON defense science advisory panel. The Defense Department should begin to take advantage of the advances in "personal genomics technology" by collecting genetic information on all military personnel, the panel advised.

The cost of sequencing complete human genomes has been falling by about a factor of 30 per year over the last six years, the JASONs said. As a result, "it is now possible to order your personal genome sequenced today for a retail cost of under ~$20,000" compared to around $300 million a decade ago. "This cost will likely fall to less than $1,000 by 2012, and to $100 by 2013."

"At costs below $1,000 per genome, a number of intriguing applications of DNA sequencing become cost effective. For example, researchers will have access to thousands or even millions of human genomes to seek correlations between genotypes [i.e. the genetic makeup of individuals] and phenotypes [i.e, the expression of genetic information in observable traits]."

Currently, the understanding of "the linkages between the genotypes of individuals and their phenotypes is limited." But "the explosion of available human genome sequence data will provide researchers from academia and industry with the genetic information necessary to conduct large-scale efforts to link genetic markers with human traits."

For military purposes, it will be up to the Department of Defense "to determine which phenotypes... have special relevance to military performance and medical cost containment" and then presumably to select for those. "These phenotypes might pertain to short- and long-term medical readiness, physical and medical performance, and response to drugs, vaccines, and various environmental exposures.... More specifically, one might wish to know about phenotypic responses to battlefield stress, including post-traumatic stress disorder, the ability to tolerate conditions of sleep deprivation, dehydration, or prolonged exposure to heat, cold, or high altitude, or the susceptibility to traumatic bone fracture, prolonged bleeding, or slow wound healing."

"Both offensive and defensive military operations may be impacted by the applications of personal genomics technologies through enhancement of the health, readiness, and performance of military personnel. It may be beneficial to know the genetic identities of an adversary and, conversely, to prevent an adversary from accessing the genetic identities of U.S. military personnel."

What could possibly go wrong? Quite a few things, actually. Besides the risk of failing to maintain the privacy and security of genetic data, the data could be used in unethical ways or their significance could be misinterpreted. "Acting on genotype information that is not convincingly linked to specific phenotypes could lead to erroneous and detrimental decision making," the JASONs said.

In any case, the JASONs advised the Pentagon, "The DoD should establish policies that result in the collection of genotype and phenotype data.... The complete diploid genome sequence for all military personnel should be collected" along with other related information.

A copy of the JASON report was obtained by Secrecy News. See "The $100 Genome: Implications for the DoD," JASON Report No. JSR-10-100, December 2010:


VARIOUS RESOURCES

A bill in the last Congress "to provide a comprehensive framework for the United States to prevent and prepare for biological and other WMD attacks" was described in a lengthy Senate report last month. The report provided a detailed congressional perspective on a range of biosecurity issues, inspired in part by the Graham-Talent Commission on the subject. However, the bill was not enacted, and its provisions did not achieve consensus support. It drew criticism in particular from Sen. Carl Levin whose dissenting comments were appended. See "WMD Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2009," Report of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, December 17, 2010.

The Indian physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-1995) was remembered in several fascinating and inspiring articles in the December 2010 issue of Physics Today. Perhaps the most stimulating one of them, written by Freeman Dyson, is freely available to non-subscribers on the Physics Today website. See "Chandrasekhar's Role in 20th Century Science" by Freeman Dyson.

We were pleased to receive a copy of "The Black Bats: CIA Spy Flights over China from Taiwan 1951-1969" by Chris Pocock with Clarence Fu, Schiffer Publishing, 2010.

Did President Calvin Coolidge really issue an executive order on "homeland security"? That seems to be the conceit of a "Compilation of Homeland Security Related Executive Orders (EO 4601 through EO 13528) (1927-2009)" prepared and published last year by the House Committee on Homeland Security. In fact, of course, "homeland security" is a term of recent vintage (and also a questionable one for a nation of immigrants). It was never used by President Coolidge. But his 1927 executive order 4601 was modified a few years ago to include reference to the Secretary of Homeland Security, thereby justifying its inclusion in this 544-page volume. Disturbingly, the editors misspelled "Foreword" as "Foreward."

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Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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