Viruses, DNA Cages, and Tigers, Oh My! A Review of Tiger Tiger

In a world in which daily headlines announce breathtaking advances in genetic engineering and synthetic biology that have the promise to eradicate disease and lengthen lifespans, it is not surprising -- and actually prudent -- that there efforts to understand how such technology could be misused. So called, dual use research of concern, is not something that is specific to biologic advances it applies to literally everything. Any technology can be misused from a drone to a fishing rod. However, it is the threat of bioterrorism coupled to rapid advances in biology that have motivated much concern and debate. Naturally, this debate has spilled into popular culture with a planned television show centered on the gene editing technology CRISPR in the works and several books, including a fiction thriller I just finished.

Tiger Tiger, the second novel in author Joann Mead's Underlying Crimes series of bio-thrillers, is the story of a biological attack on the United States and efforts to stop it. This attack is not accomplished using the usual suspects of anthrax, smallpox, plague, or botulism. It is accomplished using engineered influenza viruses -- inspired by the controversial influenza gain-of-function experiments -- for which there is no vaccine readily available. The perpetrator of the attack, an overtly nihilist philosophy professor, seeks out unscrupulous and disturbed scientist from whom to purchase these tiger influenza viruses which are derived from strains that had caused an outbreak in zoo tigers (something that has really happened). The delivery system for these viruses is no crop-duster by DNA molecular cages -- a major advance in nanomedicine.

The plot oscillates between the nefarious actors attempting to initiate their attack and the efforts of a secret group of government agents and other experts (the Partners)  to discover what is occurring after the first test infections are "successful". As they race to unravel the etiologies of these infections in order to stop them before a bigger wave of infection occurs, Mead emphasizes how open source intelligence gathering from social media, for example, can be harnessed in such endeavors as her namesake character run down various clues.

I enjoyed reading the book, less for its literary value (and multiple unusual sex scenes), than for its presentation of how a bioterrorism attack might look in the world of nanotechnology, CRISPR and synthetic biology. When it comes to these technologies, I view them as pathbreaking technologies with enormous value that far eclipses any potential downside from improper use -- which isn't as easy as it might seem in a novel, a movie, or a government report. I also enjoyed a science-driven plot that was not completely fantastical and well-informed by the actual issues, the science, and the technology of the day.

The theme of Tiger Tiger may be the relative ease with which a bioterrorist attack can be executed and the increasing realization of that fact by those who would seek to do harm -- something which almost everyone in my field would agree is true.