To Censor or not to Censor– Is that a valid scientific question?

Modern molecular biology enables researchers to create DNAs, RNAs, proteins, cells, organ systems, and organisms that have never existed before.  Thanks to decades of recombinant DNA technology,  the  acts of inserting, deleting, truncating, or selectively expressing DNA sequences as RNAs or proteins is possible.  While these efforts have caused controversy (addressed at the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA) they have been invaluable in advancing science and medicine.

Recently, experiments by two groups, submitted to the journals Science and Nature, essentially described how to make the H5N1 influenza virus more transmissible between ferrets (a common influenza model system).  These studies have been reviewed by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSSAB), and they have concluded that the manuscripts should “not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.”  The panel details their thinking in a Nature Comment.  The authors and the respective journals have agreed to these terms.  Separately, leading researchers in the H5N1 field have volunteered to follow a 60-day moratorium on research that may lead to an increase in the transmissibility of the virus.

While it is tempting to want to sequester this sort of high profile research from those who may want to use the findings to do harm, it is necessary to remember that virtually all research publications offer new insights into biology.  Articles are submitted to announce new findings, whether they report new molecules, new uses for previously known substances, new techniques, or changes to currently accepted dogma.  Gain- or loss-of-function studies are the primary means of determining the role of any cellular component.  In the wrong hands, the simplest aspects of biology could be exploited.

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