CBRN Threats and Solutions
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Dark Biotechnology – An Emerging Solution To CBRN Emergencies

Abstract: While humanity has made great strides in technological advancement, these achievements have not come without repercussions. Chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) emergencies pose the greatest threat. These calamities can seriously perturb the multifaceted network of life on Earth. The use of biotechnology has demonstrated promise in both preventing and managing these kinds of catastrophic disasters as well as in minimising their aftereffects.

Problem statement: How to understand the pressing need for a robust and safe strategy to address and lessen CBRN-related effects?

So what?: Harnessing the potential biotechnology is the key to addressing this challenge, emphasising the positive aspects of dark biotechnology for actively combating and mitigating the CBRN-associated dangers.

Source: shutterstock.com/Stephen Barnes

A Natural and Human-Caused Threat

The Earth is a dynamically rich and biologically diversified planet due to the complex interactions of several elements that have allowed life to evolve and flourish here, such as a stable climate, liquid water, and various habitats. Billions of years have passed in this astounding quest to establish a habitable planet. Thus, the Earth continues to be a remarkable example of the existence of living things, even as scientists continue their ceaseless search for evidence of life beyond our planet. How we understand the Earth has changed significantly in the annals of scientific knowledge. It no longer holds the position of the universe’s core. However, the Earth remains a unique entity, holding its unmatched status.[1]

Humans have achieved great strides in developing technologies that have greatly benefited the planet. However, our planet has also suffered greatly due to these advancements. Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) agents have emerged as a major challenge, severely impacting biology, where ‘biology’ refers to the Earth. Both natural and human-caused CBRN disasters are possible, though the latter are more common. Although not directly associated with CBRN incidents, natural disasters can potentially serve as an indirect catalyst for them. For instance, natural calamities such as earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, or even asteroid strikes can expose the environment to hazardous gasses and chemical wastes that could cause CBRN events.[2] However, the frequency of human-caused CBRN incidents is rising steadily.

Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear agents have emerged as a major challenge, severely impacting biology, where ‘biology’ refers to the Earth.

Dark Biotechnology As An Emergency Solution

Due to its wide range of applications and fields of study, the term “biotechnology” has notably increased prominence and usage over the past several decades. Classifying different biotechnology applications according to their goals and purposes is crucial for enabling a deeper comprehension of this field’s vast array of aspects.[3] As a result of this classification, eleven formal colours of biotechnology have been developed, each addressing a different sector.[4]

Eleven colours of biotechnology; Source: Author.

Among these is “dark biotechnology,” currently defined mainly as the application of biotechnology in illegal endeavours like bioterrorism and biowarfare.[5] The notion of ‘dark biotechnology’ as it exists today is quite narrow, concentrating mostly on these malicious uses. It is critical to recognise that these actions only comprise a small portion of the wider range of emergencies, especially those involving CBRN catastrophes. Thus, it is imperative to redefine the term ‘dark biotechnology’ and broaden its definition to encompass the branch of biotechnology that efficiently applies biotechnological advancements for managing an array of emergencies, focusing on CBRN catastrophes (accident or deliberate).

Among these is “dark biotechnology,” currently defined mainly as the application of biotechnology in illegal endeavours like bioterrorism and biowarfare.

In the modern world, where there is a significant risk of CBRN emergencies, biotechnology is crucial for developing novel approaches to mitigate these potentially disastrous crises. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, CBRN emergencies involve CBRN agents, such as hazardous and poisonous chemicals, chemical and biological warfare agents, and radioactive materials. Occupational exposure, explosions, fires, toxicant leakage, and warfare are all common causes of CBRN incidents, which can also be brought on by accident, inattention, ignorance, or malevolent intent.[6] CBRN dangers are now a harsh reality in the modern world rather than a source of fear. There are multiple ways that CBRN agents might enter the body, and as a result, there can be variations in the type and timing of symptoms.

A long trail of extreme miseries that go beyond the bounds of human experience is left behind by the CBRN accidents. CBRN incidents are characterised by contamination and lethality, which necessitate high attention in the form of increased awareness of the development of advanced devices like detectors, personal protective gear, decontamination aids, and medical support measures.[7] The CBRN field has been the subject of extensive research for many years, and as a result, the world has abundant information and experience from which to draw.

Chemical Emergencies

A chemical emergency can occur due to releasing toxic chemicals in the form of liquids, gases, or solids. It can occur due to industrial accidents, infrastructural failures, or deliberate attacks.[8] The military has grown concerned about a far wider range of chemical risks than it was ten years ago, many of which are toxic industrial chemicals (TIC).[9] Various chemical inventions and broad applications have historically been crucial to advancing industry, agriculture, technology, and medicine. However, as we have entered a period characterised by sophisticated technologies and heightened chemical manufacturing; humankind has also observed significant adverse effects on biology. Global chemical output has increased 400 times in the past century alone, resulting in an increasing number of hazardous compounds being released into the environment. Developments in industrial, agricultural, and technological practices are directly related to these transitions.[10] Also, the overuse of chemical fertilisers and pesticides is a major issue that directly affects the devastation of ecosystems.[11] Globally, these substances are the most common chemical pollutants as they are used extensively and copiously in urban and agricultural settings.[12]

Various chemical inventions and broad applications have historically been crucial to advancing industry, agriculture, technology, and medicine.

Recent major CBRN emergencies; Source: Author.

A Glimpse into the Major Chemical Emergencies

2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD or dioxin) is a nonflammable, colourless solid produced as a byproduct of solid waste burning, herbicides, pesticides, disinfectants, and paper mills. It is known to be a strong endocrine disruptor and human carcinogen.[13] The chemical factory Industrie Chimiche Meda Società Azionaria (ICMESA) near Seveso, Italy, experienced a chemical incident in 1976 due to a malfunctioning valve, which led to the release of TCDD into the surrounding environment. This led to contamination of the surrounding settlements and the land in the municipality of Seveso.[14] Following the event, several lethal health issues have been identified through further health studies on the Seveso people. These included, but were not limited to, problems with reproduction,[15] fibroma development,[16] and cardiovascular complications.[17] Moreover, it was noted that while the first two decades after the explosion did not show a significant increase in the overall cancer mortality rates, there was a subsequent rise in the incidence of cancer.[18]

The Sandoz chemical disaster in 1986, Switzerland, is another example of solid chemical discharge and is still regarded as the worst chemical accident in Swiss history.[19] Thousands of tons of chemical pollutants were released into the Rhine River and the surrounding environment due to this incident. This led to the catastrophic loss of almost all plant and animal life 180 kilometres downstream and temporarily made the river water unsafe to drink.[20]

The Bhopal disaster occurred in 1984 when an insecticide facility in Bhopal, India, leaked about 45 tons of the dangerous chemical methyl isocyanate (MIC).[21] This deadly gas spread into the densely populated districts around the facility, killing thousands of people and igniting the Bhopal gas tragedy, which is regarded as the world’s most catastrophic industrial accident.[22] Several decades after the incident, survivors and the generations that followed continue to struggle with chronic and severe medical issues, including cancer, neurological and reproductive disorders.[23]

Organophosphate nerve agents (OPNA) are another example of chemicals that have been exploited in many hazardous ways.[24] These neurotoxic agents are being exploited as weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in chemical warfare as well as terrorist attacks. Some of the most notable instances of the improper use of these agents are the use of sarin, a synthetic OPNA, in the Tokyo Subway Attack of 1995[25] and the Ghouta chemical attack of 2013.[26]

Oil spills are another significant chemical incident. One of the biggest oil spills in history occurred during the Gulf War 1991,[27] releasing over 11 million barrels of crude oil and contaminating the Persian Gulf’s marine environment with heavy metals.[28] Many more events, such as the 2008 La Porte chemical fire[29] and the 2013 West fertiliser explosion in Texas,[30] have had detrimental effects on the environment and human health. It is alarming to note that there have been about 25 chemical emergencies in Texas in 2023.[31] These are only a few examples of chemical emergencies that have had a major effect on the environment and health of humans and other life forms.

Biotech Solutions for Chemical Emergencies

Biotechnology has emerged as a powerful and promising weapon to combat chemical emergencies before and after they occur. For instance, biosensors are growing rapidly due to their continuous and real-time detection capabilities, which are being utilised as a potential diagnostic tool.[32] Enzymes, antibodies, nucleic acids, receptors, and even entire cells are among the biological components used to detect the existence and concentration of chemicals.[33] Many studies have shown that inorganic pollutants and heavy metals can also be detected quickly and effectively using biosensors, which use whole microorganisms as sensing components.[34] Biotechnology has also helped humans to develop genetically modified microbes with improved features for decontamination purposes. For instance, bioremediation is a crucial tool for tackling environmental contamination, which allows different chemicals and physical waste to be metabolised, eliminated, modified, immobilised, or detoxified using the abilities of bacteria, fungi, and plants.[35]

Biosensors are growing rapidly due to their continuous and real-time detection capabilities, which are being utilised as a potential diagnostic tool.

In the context of bioremediation of spilt oil, studies have brought attention to the importance of certain bacterial subclasses, specifically α and γ Proteobacteria,[36] with a focus on Pseudomonas[37]and Cycloclasticus[38] species. Furthermore, approaches like bioaugmentation and biostimulation have been shown to be both economical and environmentally benign. These techniques provide several benefits for removing toxic chemicals from contaminated soil and water in impacted areas.[39] Pre-grown microbial cultures are added as part of a bioaugmentation process to accelerate the breakdown of undesirable compounds. In contrast, biostimulation involves introducing additional components and nutrients to the natural microbial population to promote rapid growth. Globally, these methods are used for in situ bioremediation of locations impacted by unintentional spills and persistent chemical contamination.[40]

Enzymatic detoxification is another biotechnologically sustainable method for breaking down chemical warfare nerve agents and hazardous organophosphate pesticides.[41] The development of recombinant enzymes like paraoxonase[42] has made it possible to neutralise various organophosphate compounds, demonstrating its safety as a preventative measure.[43] Moreover, biofiltration is a biotechnology approach used to manage air pollution that entails passing off gases comprising inorganic air toxics or biodegradable volatile organic compounds (VOC) through a biologically active substance. It has proven to have more than 90% control efficiency for numerous common air pollutants.[44]

The development of recombinant enzymes like paraoxonase has made it possible to neutralise various organophosphate compounds, demonstrating its safety as a preventative measure.

Thus, biotechnological applications are becoming essential in handling chemical emergencies by offering innovative detection, remediation, and prevention solutions. Scientific progress is being made in developing biohybrid systems, which combine synthetic living elements to improve environmental surveillance and restoration.[45] These strategies demonstrate how biotechnology has the potential to alter the way we respond to chemical emergencies fundamentally. As a result, these biotechnological tools are useful for handling chemical crises and offering creative, long-lasting answers to environmental and public health problems. These measures provide hope for a resilient and environmentally friendly future if their development and implementation continue to progress.

Biological Emergencies

Biological emergencies, or biohazards, are caused by biological entities that may accidentally or deliberately utilised to cause deadly effects on a large-scale population of humans, animals or plants.[46] It has long been known from history that using toxins and infectious agents directly against enemy soldiers is a warfare tactic. Indeed, even in cases where they haven’t been intentionally utilised as weapons, illnesses have killed more people in numerous conflicts than all of the combat arms combined.[47] Consequently, there has been increased research into using biological components as weapons, and technological advancements have made it easier. Although numerous international treaties and conventions have been formed throughout history to prevent the globalisation of defensive biological weapons programs, there is no rigorous verification process to guarantee that nations adhere to them. According to reports, even intelligence agencies have trouble gathering information on biological weapon programs, and little is known about the nature and extent of previous operations.[48] Thus, biological emergencies are undoubtedly still a serious threat, as seen by the numerous accidental and deliberate biological emergencies that humanity has experienced.

A Glimpse into the Major Biological Emergencies

According to the National Disaster Management Authority, Government of India, biological emergencies are defined as ‘causative of process or phenomenon of organic origin or conveyed by biological vectors, including exposure to pathogenic microorganisms, toxins and bioactive substances that may cause loss of life, injury, illness or other health impacts, property damage, loss of livelihoods and services, social and economic disruption, or environmental damage’. Biological emergencies have influenced knowledge of infectious diseases and the necessity of efficient public health interventions. A biological emergency can be an epidemic that simultaneously strikes a disproportionately large number of people in a community, region, or population.[49] Yellow fever, for example, is a mosquito-borne flavivirus disease that primarily affects tropical regions of Africa and South America. Although there has been a vaccination for the disease for almost 75 years, it is still a severe threat to those who travel to and live in endemic places.[50]

Conversely, a pandemic is an existing illness or epidemic that spreads over a vast area, such as a continent, or even globally. The Black Death is one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, which ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351 and took a disproportionately higher toll on lives than any other known disease or warfare up to that time.[51] Research conducted by Haensch et al. identified Yersinia pestis as the cause of the Black Death, now known as the plague, and it was not a one-time event as it recurred many times.[52] As with the Spanish flu in 1918–1920,[53] humankind has witnessed other pandemics, such as the most recent coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.[54]

With studies showing that individuals, terrorist organisations, and criminals have the capacity and the intent to utilise biological pathogens to bring about harm to society, the term ‘bioterrorism’ has expanded in significance, and the threat posed by it is real.[55] According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ‘bioterrorism is defined as the deliberate release of viruses, bacteria or other agents used to cause illness or death in people, and also in animals or plants’.[56]

Terrorist organisations, and criminals have the capacity and the intent to utilise biological pathogens to bring about harm to society, the term ‘bioterrorism’ has expanded in significance, and the threat posed by it is real.

Biological weapons have historically posed a threat to humankind for many centuries. Back then, water sources were contaminated by very basic techniques like animal carcasses and faeces. Still, currently, humankind has concentrated biological agents like genetically modified organisms and dried spores that can be lethal in even small quantities.[57] As early as the 14th century BC, infectious diseases and other biological weapons were recognised for potentially affecting armies or populations. The first known instance of biowarfare was when the Neshites, also known as the Hittites, purposefully used Francisella tularensis on their enemies during the Neshite-Arzawan conflict. As a result of this biowarfare, tularemia, often known as the Hittite plague, broke out, inflicting fever, disability, and death in humans and animals over more than 40 years.[58]

Another frightening event in the history of biological warfare occurred in the interwar years when Japan’s Unit 731, which was formally called the Army Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory, subjected captives to cruel experiments, including vivisection.[59] In these studies, human participants were injected with lethal strains of diseases such as smallpox, cholera, anthrax, tularemia, botulism, and bubonic plague. To observe the consequences of the disorders, subjects were not given any treatments.[60] Large-scale biological weapon testing was carried out as a result of Unit 731’s research, which also produced pathogen-disseminating bombs, poisoned wells and reservoirs, and dropped contaminated objects and fleas infested with the plague into unoccupied Chinese territory. Because it was difficult to handle biological weapons, hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of these attacks, including Japanese soldiers.[61] These research endeavours of Unit 731, along with its affiliated Unit 1644, were used to attack Kaimingjie, an area in a Chinese province during the Second Sino-Japanese War in the 1940s. Most research in these divisions concentrated on the bubonic plague, leading to the six separate plague outbreaks in China during the war.[62] Another EW developed by researchers at Unit 731 was called “Yagi bombs.” These bombs included two compartments filled with houseflies and bacterial slurry that coated the flies right before they were released. Over 400,000 people are estimated to have died horribly as a result of the Japanese entomological warfare in China.[63]

In addition to the Unit 731 incident, military and civilian people have been threatened by entomological warfare (EW) throughout human history. EW has been utilised in various forms, such as employing insects as direct weapons or serving as disease-transmitting vectors.[64] Furthermore, a form of warfare known as ‘agroterrorism’, which involves using insects or arthropods to ruin enemy crops, is another thing that numerous countries have accused one another of but is rarely confirmed.[65] Moreover, as insects are naturally occurring carriers of a wide range of diseases, it can be challenging to distinguish between a deliberate action and a natural occurrence when it comes to hazards brought by insects or arthropods.[66] While the Unit 731 research represents the most alarming instance of the use of EW, numerous other nations have also looked into the potential of insects and the diseases they carry as biological weapons. The United States, for example, has experimented with EW-based strategies on their citizens in operations such as Big Itch and Drop Kick.[67] In addition, famines, along with other risks to the availability of resources, are significant consequences of these biohazards, which are also accountable for the deaths of a large number of people.[68]

A form of warfare known as ‘agroterrorism’, which involves using insects or arthropods to ruin enemy crops, is another thing that numerous countries have accused one another of but is rarely confirmed.

Nowadays, countries have several possibilities to carry out an offensive biological weapons program, with technological limitations significantly reduced to just international opinion or fear of repercussions. In recent years, the border between fact and fiction has become hazier due to the rapid advancement of genetic engineering technologies. James Clapper, the CNN national security analyst and the former Director of National Intelligence of the U.S., listed genome editing as a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) in his 2016 threat assessment report to the U.S. Senate[69]. Concerns over the potential of CRISPR to be used for developing ‘killer mosquito’ plagues that destroy food crops or even a virus that targets human DNA were brought up by scientists in the news reports that covered his assessment.[70] Genetically modified (GM) crops are being utilised extensively worldwide due to technological advancements, while the safety of GM foods for humans and animals is still up for debate. In addition to these concerns about food safety, experts are apprehensive about the possibility of GM crop products becoming weaponry.[71] It has been reported that the microRNA of plants can enter the human body through the digestive tract, which provides substantial confirmation of the use of GM crops as bioweapons.[72] Thus, given that most of the genome editing techniques are accessible and quite affordable, it is certain that the threat would increase if they fell into the hands of nations with dubious ethical standards.[73] The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which was established in 1972 to essentially forbid research, manufacture, transfer, acquisition, stockpiling, and deployment of biological and toxic weapons, was intended to stop such atrocities. This first multinational disarmament pact prohibited an entire class of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).[74] However, according to data collection studies done by Tin et al. using a retrospective database search through the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), 33 terrorist attacks involving biological agents were reported between 1970 and 2019.[75] This raises serious concerns about this grave issue. While many of these bioweapons have been developed via biotechnology techniques, biotechnology also offers solutions for managing, preventing, and responding to biological emergencies, bioterrorism, and biowarfare.

33 terrorist attacks involving biological agents were reported between 1970 and 2019.

Biotech Solutions for Biological Emergencies

Biosecurity has become increasingly important in the context of biological emergencies, and biotechnology tools are essential for strengthening biosecurity efforts. As per the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), biosecurity comprises regulatory frameworks and strategic policies designed to analyse and manage public health, animal and plant health, food safety, and associated environmental risks.[76]

Pathogen detection is a crucial part of biosecurity to handle biological emergencies. Early detection makes effective containment and isolation measures possible, making designing and administering targeted therapies and vaccinations easier to enhance patient outcomes and lessen the severity of outbreaks.[77] It has been shown that biotechnology tools like biosensors[78] and next-generation sequencing (NGS)[79] are effective for early pathogen identification. Moreover, biosurveillance systems that use central cloud-based analysis and NGS to track pathogen detection and resistance improve our knowledge of the severity of outbreaks.[80] Diagnostic tools based on clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), like DNA endonuclease-targeted CRISPR trans reporter (DETECTR) or specific high-sensitivity enzymatic reporter unlocking (SHERLOCK), provide quick and highly accurate pathogen identification.[81] These tools can be easily modified to detect emerging infectious pathogens, offering beneficial data for containment operations. Researchers also modified CRISPER/Cas 9 into effective ‘gene drive’ systems that could propagate disease-resistant genes throughout whole populations to combat the development of mosquito-borne diseases like chikungunya, malaria, dengue, and zika.[82] Another biotech tool that has been around since the 1950s is the sterile insect technique (SIT), a species-specific, non-polluting strategy for managing insects that has been proven successful even when pesticide resistance has reduced the efficacy of insecticides.[83]  To battle vector-borne diseases and other EW, biotechnology has also assisted us in developing tools like Zink Finger (ZFN)[84], precision-guided sterile insect technique (PgSIT),[85] and transcription activator-like effector nuclease (TALEN).[86] Further, vaccinations, a potent biotechnological tool, have been crucial in averting infectious diseases that may cause biological catastrophes.

With his groundbreaking discoveries, Edward Jenner set out to popularise vaccinations in the 18th century to end the terrible disease of smallpox.[87] The advancement of biotechnology has greatly aided the field of vaccine research, sparing countless lives from the clutches of infectious diseases. As evidenced by the astounding efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine, vaccinations have thus become an essential weapon in our arsenal against infectious threats.[88] Furthermore, biotechnology has reshaped decontamination and disinfection methods, offering targeted and efficient means to eliminate hazardous microbes.

Vaccinations have thus become an essential weapon in our arsenal against infectious threats.

Biotechnology has led the way towards developing bio-decontamination techniques that use biological materials.[89] It has also made it easier to produce biocompatible polymers, and the demand for industrial safety has driven the development of advanced bio-decontamination technologies.[90] Furthermore, to address the problems associated with environmental cleanup, biotechnology has been essential in developing bio-nanozymes that are stable, reusable, affordable, efficient, and environmentally benign.[91] As a result, biotechnology is now a vital instrument in humans’ fight against biological emergencies, helping us with everything from early pathogen identification to vaccine development and decontamination techniques. Even though there are still obstacles to overcome, the continuous progress in biotechnology keeps us better equipped and more resilient to possible biological emergencies.

Radiological Emergencies

WHO defines radiological emergencies as situations involving radiation exposure from a radioactive source.[92] An anomalous or unforeseen radiation risk can be attributed to any circumstance that constitutes a radiological emergency. This description includes any spill, from a small amount of radioactive solution spilt in a lab to a large reactor accident that might discharge hundreds of becquerels (Bq) of fission byproducts.[93] Accidental encounters with uncontrolled radiation sources, mishandling of radioactive sources in industrial, medical, or research applications, and mishaps involving the transportation of radioactive materials are some of the causes of radiation emergencies. Conventional emergencies, natural disasters, military conflicts, or malevolent acts involving radiation sources can also result in radiation emergencies.[94] 

Accidental encounters with uncontrolled radiation sources, mishandling of radioactive sources in industrial, medical, or research applications, and mishaps involving the transportation of radioactive materials are some of the causes of radiation emergencies.

A Glimpse into the Major Radiological Emergencies

One of the worst radiological incidents in history happened at the end of 1985 when a caesium-137 teletherapy unit was mishandled at the Institute Goiano de Radioterapia, a private radiation institute in Goiania, Brazil.[95] More than 200 persons were irradiated as a result, and post-mortem analyses of deceased victims revealed septic and hemorrhagic complications associated with the acute radiation syndrome. In the studies that were conducted on radiation-exposed patients, the majority of the patients experienced significant bone marrow depression, bleeding, and infections, among other adverse effects. Due to the extremely soluble and easily dispersible nature of the caesium chloride salt being utilised as the radioactive source, environmental contamination happened very quickly, resulting in both internal and external radiation contamination of all living things.[96] The Mayapuri Radiological Incident in 2010 serves as another illustration of the dire consequences that can result from improper handling of radioactive materials. The University of Delhi in India improperly disposed of the source, a gamma unit that contained Cobalt-60 pencils. The unit was then sold to unsuspecting scrap traders who disassembled it. As a result, there were seven radiation injuries and one radiation death from the most serious radiation mishap that has been documented in India to date.[97]

Due of its high efficiency, radiation treatment or radiotherapy is being used much more frequently as the reported incidence of cancer rises in most nations. Radiation therapy uses radiation to directly eliminate cancerous tissue while also destroying healthy tissue as it enters the body. Therefore, attaining a radiation dose that is both high enough to destroy cancerous tissue and low enough to protect healthy tissue is essential for the successful use of radiotherapy. A carefully chosen combination of treatment geometry and fractionated dosage delivery is used to achieve this delicate balance, resulting in an ideal dose distribution within the body and time.[98] Radiation overdose in Costa Rica is one reminder of how treatment employing radiotherapies must be administered extremely carefully to avoid hazards. The Costa Rican Government asked the  International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to help examine radiation patients’ overexposure in San José, Costa Rica, in July 1997. The replacement of a 60Co radiation therapy source was performed at the San Juan de Dios Hospital in San José on August 22, 1996, which marked the beginning event. The dosage rate was calculated incorrectly when the new source was calibrated. Patients received much higher radiation doses than recommended due to this mathematical error. It is reported that 115 people receiving treatment for neoplasm were impacted by this significant radiation accident, and 42 of the patients had passed away within nine months of the disaster.[99] Radiation-related hazards have continued to be reported over the years in all sectors despite numerous treaties and laws being adopted in the wake of these instances. Numerous investigations have revealed that the majority of overexposures that have been documented have happened in the medical areas where fluoroscopy and radiation therapy are used. The higher incidence of overexposure accidents that have been documented suggests that improved quality assurance procedures or instruments may be required to reduce or prevent these occurrences.[100]

Radiation-related hazards have continued to be reported over the years in all sectors despite numerous treaties and laws being adopted in the wake of these instances.

Nuclear Emergencies

The 1950s saw the advent of nuclear power, and as of right now, more than 400 reactors are operating worldwide, producing about 10% of the global electricity supply. Nuclear energy gained popularity because it has the potential to be a more reliable and environmentally benign energy source than fossil fuels.[101] Despite its advantages over other fuel types, nuclear energy has been associated with significantly worse emergencies throughout history, whether deliberate or accidental.[102]

A Glimpse into the Major Nuclear Emergencies

On August 06 and August 09, 1945, the U.S. detonated the first atomic bombs ever used against humanity on the Imperial Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, the cities were destroyed, and the bombings contributed to bringing about the end of World War II. An estimated 140,000 people died in Hiroshima and 74,000 more in Nagasaki as a result of the attack by the end of 1945. While Fat Man, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, was an implosion fission bomb using plutonium, Little Boy, the weapon dropped on Hiroshima, was a gun-assembly fission bomb using uranium.[103]

Leukaemia is the most fatal of the long-term impacts that survivors of the atomic bomb encountered, and many of them had other horrible side effects from the radiation in the years that followed. Leukaemia began to rise approximately two years following the bombings and peaked four to six years later.[104] Studies on people exposed to radiation before birth (in utero) have demonstrated that exposure causes impairments in physical growth, small head size as well as mental disabilities.[105]

Leukaemia is the most fatal of the long-term impacts that survivors of the atomic bomb encountered, and many of them had other horrible side effects from the radiation in the years that followed.

Another notorious nuclear disaster in history is the 1986 Chornobyl Disaster, which occurred in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which is the most catastrophic event to ever happen in the nuclear power industry. The accident wrecked the reactor and spilt a significant amount of radioactive material into the surrounding area. Within a few weeks of the catastrophe, thirty workers lost their lives, and over a hundred others had radiation ailments. The catastrophe resulted in significant economic losses for the entire region and major social and psychological disturbances in the lives of those impacted.[106] Over the last 20 years, numerous studies have been carried out to investigate the relationship between exposure to radioactive fallout from the Chornobyl accident and subsequent health effects. These studies have revealed that many people have experienced severe side effects, including thyroid cancer in children.[107]

Following the Chornobyl disaster, there was a global awakening about the significance of nuclear safety. This resulted in the establishment of numerous accords, protocols, and guidelines to address and prevent nuclear mishaps. Since then, several treaties, agreements, and safety precautions have been implemented.[108] One such step is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an independent organisation connected to the UN that implemented management measures and eventually led to the creation and gradual evolution of the current ‘global nuclear safety regime’.[109]

Nevertheless, radio-nuclear events have persisted despite the implementation of multiple treaties and management measures in the wake of the Chornobyl disaster. There is a high probability that they will continue in the future. Interestingly, the flexibility and resilience of some organisms in places contaminated by radioactive fallout offer significant insight into how nature can eventually recover. The Chornobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) and other areas impacted by nuclear accidents have seen such recovery.[110]

Biotech Solutions for Radio-Nuclear Emergencies

According to studies, fungi have been discovered to flourish in high-radiation areas around Chornobyl; this phenomenon is known as radiotropism. Radiation also stimulated spore germination in species from contaminated areas.[111] The observation that radiostimulation is solely seen in species from contaminated regions; isolates from clean areas do not exhibit this phenomenon is intriguing. Tugay et al. called this phenomenon radioadaptive response. These natural processes provide hope and inspiration for prospective mitigation techniques against the effects of nuclear emergencies.[112]

Fungi have been discovered to flourish in high-radiation areas around Chornobyl; this phenomenon is known as radiotropism.

Biotechnology can be utilised to manage (and prevent) radioactive emergencies by utilising the natural processes and organisms’ resistance seen in places exposed to radioactivity.[113] Biotechnological techniques can increase the bioremediation process’s effectiveness by utilising these organisms’ innate capacity to clean up radioactively contaminated areas.[114] It has been observed that a variety of microorganisms can interact with radionuclides, including Rhodanobacter species and Desulfuromusa ferrireducens.[115] This microbial-mediated biotransformation offers opportunities for bioremediation of radionuclides in the environment. It has been reported that numerous plant species, including Axonopus compressus, exhibit adaptable traits that allow for the uptake, absorption, transmission, and degradation of several radionuclides.[116] As a result, biotechnology can be utilised to augment the phytoremediation capabilities of plants. It is possible to genetically modify plants to enhance their capacity to take up and retain radioactive elements, which will help clean up polluted soil. To increase plants’ resistance to radiation and strengthen their capacity for remediation, scientists may look at using genetically modified plants that synthesise specific proteins or enzymes.[117]

Further, biotechnology made the advancement of sophisticated biosensors that can identify low radiation levels possible. These biosensors could be installed in nuclear facilities and the surrounding areas to provide early warning systems and enable quick response and mitigation in the case of a nuclear disaster.[118] Biotechnological applications are becoming crucial for emergency response and preparation measures in radio-nuclear emergencies. Although there is potential for these biotechnological approaches, it is important to proceed cautiously and consider ethical, safety, and environmental concerns.

No Fiction

Multiple historical occurrences have shown us that CBRN emergencies are no longer fiction because of technological advancements. Although most CBRN emergency agents or sources were developed to assist in making human life easier, they are also employed for malevolent purposes.  Due to the generally hazardous nature of these sources, even little mishaps can potentially severely damage both the environment and humans. It is important to remember that while harm or destruction caused by accidental or intentional CBRN emergencies can have fatal consequences right away, we have witnessed numerous times that these hazards’ deadly aftereffects on people and the environment can linger for generations and result in serious issues.

We have witnessed numerous times that these hazards’ deadly aftereffects on people and the environment can linger for generations and result in serious issues.

While many CBRN events have their roots in biotechnology applications, employing biotechnology knowledge can greatly enhance our methods for mitigating, detecting, and managing CBRN disasters. Although the term dark biotechnology is now used to refer to the improper use of biotechnology in bioterrorism or biowarfare, its definition must be revised, considering the serious threat that all emergencies offer to the modern world. Thus, the realm of dark biotechnology has room to grow and redefine itself since there isn’t a formal field of biotechnology that addresses all CBRN incidents. Thus, by acknowledging the positive aspects of dark biotechnology, we can actively combat and mitigate the dangers associated with CBRN threats, paving the way for a more resilient and safe future.

Abhay H Pande is a distinguished professor at the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education & Research (NIPER), S.A.S Nagar, India, with more than 27 years of experience in biotechnology. This endeavour has resulted in an academic portfolio comprising over 70 articles, 11 conference abstracts, and 15 patents. With a focus on protein biopharmaceuticals, he has dedicated 15 years to developing prophylactic agents against nerve agent poisoning.

J Anakha is currently a doctoral researcher under the guidance of Professor Abhay H Pande at the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (NIPER) in S.A.S Nagar, India. She holds a master’s degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the Central University of Kerala.

The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of NIPER, S.A.S Nagar, India.

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