A global catastrophic biological risk (GCBR) is a biological risk of unprecedented scale with the potential to cause major harm to human civilization.
Biotechnology offers potentially exciting ways to make people much better off, to find new ways to tackle disease, and to address climate change. However, because many biological systems are at least in principle self-replicating, significant modifications of some kinds could also pose serious risks.
A life-sciences area which currently receives attention from risk experts is gain-of-function (GOF) research, in which particularly concerning pathogens like H5N1 influenza are modified to increase their virulence or transmissibility. Researchers are divided as to whether the benefits of such experiments are worth the risks that come from either accidental release of pathogens or the misuse of discoveries by malicious actors (Duprex et al 2015; Selgelid 2016). In the near term, such pathogens probably pose a non-existential global catastrophic risk, but there is some chance that related life-sciences work might one day pose an existential risk.
Cotton-Barratt, Owen et al. 2016. Global catastrophic risks.
A report focusing on risks from biotechnology, as well as other types of global catastrophic risk.
Duprex, Paul et al. 2015. Gain-of-function experiments: time for a real debate.
Nature reviews microbiology 13(1): 58-64
An overview article featuring leading proponents and opponents of GOF experiments discussing the benefits and risks associated with this research.
Selgelid, Michael. 2016. Gain-of-function research: ethical analysis.
Science and engineering ethics 22(4): 923-964.
A paper outlining the main moral considerations surrounding GOF research.