Earlier this year, we published a short article to highlight some of the issues associated with the rapid developments in biotechnology, particularly synthetic biology and human augmentation. The aim was to draw the focus on disruptive technologies away from the massive transformations occurring in information technologies (including artificial intelligence), and toward other areas seeing massive transformations that are likely to have national security implications.

The 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community lists biotechnology as a disruptive technology, noting that “advances in biotechnology, including gene editing, synthetic biology, and neuroscience, are likely to present new economic, military, and ethical challenges worldwide as governments struggle to keep pace.” Across the Atlantic, the most recent Global Strategic Trends from the British Ministry of Defence also examined this disruptive technology. The October 2018 reports notes that “human enhancement technologies are nascent now and their development over the next 30 years is likely to offer profound expansion of the boundaries of human performance. They present opportunities to enhance military capability and improve performance of force elements. Moral, ethical and legal thresholds need to be defined to inform the development of human enhancement technologies within societies and armed forces.”

Therefore, as military leaders and national security professionals, we need to develop a foundational literacy in the technological applications, as well as the legal and ethical issues, of biotechnology. As a recent Belfer Center report finds, it is vital for non-technologists to be conversant in the basics of AI and machine learning. This holds true for biotechnology. The military and wider national security community must construct an institutional reservoir of generalists who understand biotechnology and its future opportunities and challenges.

To this end, we have assembled some resources that may be useful for national security professionals in developing their literacy of the technologies, legal and ethical issues, and the opportunities and challenges of future biotechnology and synthetic biology. It is not comprehensive, and there will be many War Books followers who can (and should) add to the list. We trust this reading list provides a great start, however, in building knowledge about synthetic biology and future biotechnology issues for military personnel and national security professionals.

Books and Journals

George Church and Ed Regis, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves (Basic Books, 2014)

Geoff Baldwin, et al, eds, Synthetic Biology: A Primer (Revised Edition – ICP, 2015)

Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad, Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War (Simon and Schuster, 2002)

ACS Synthetic Biology — A monthly, peer-reviewed journal focused on research in biological systems and synthetic biology


Patrick Lin, Maxwell J. Mehlman, and Keith Abney, Enhanced Warfighters: Risks, Ethics and Policy, (The Greenwall Foundation, January 2013)

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Positioning Synthetic Biology to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century (The National Academies Press, 2013)

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Opportunities in Biotechnology for Future Army Applications (The National Academies Press, 2001)

Australian Council of Learned Academies, Synthetic Biology in Australia: An outlook to 2030 (September 2018)

Australian Council of Learned Academies, The Future of Precision Medicine in Australia (January 2018)

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology (The National Academies Press, 2018)

Websites and Blogs

https://geneticliteracyproject.org/ — The Genetic Literacy Project aid the public, media, and policymakers in understanding the science and societal implications of biotechnology research and to promote science literacy.

https://www.technologyreview.com/topic/rewriting-life/— From the MIT Technology Review, a range of biotechnology articles.

https://pandorareport.org/ — The blog for a variety of issues associated with biodefence from the staff and students of George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government Biodefense program.

Science Daily, Biotechnology News — Covers all the latest research around the world on genetic engineering and more.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Disruptive Technology — A fine site that covers several disruptive technologies, including biotechnology, and their impacts on society.

DARPA, Biosystems Research — Although some DARPA research may seem highly aspirational, moonshots are always inspirational!

Twitter Feeds

@Labiotech_eu — Digital media covering developments in biotechnology in Europe.

@ptetlock — The feed of Philip Tetlock—because cognitive biases will probably always remain with us, whatever percentage “human” we may be.

@CRISPR_News — All the latest in CRISPR developments and breakthroughs.

@ACSSynBio — A rapid publication resource for research in synthetic biology and bioscience.


Mick Ryan is an Australian Army officer, and Commander of the Australian Defence College in Canberra, Australia. A distinguished graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the USMC Staff College and School of Advanced Warfare, he is a passionate advocate of professional education and lifelong learning.

Therese Keane is a scientist with the Defence Science and Technology Group. She possesses a background in mathematics and is now expanding this into biotechnology with PhD studies at the Australian National University.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.


Image credit: Christopher Amrich