The publication of two papers reporting the engineering of highly pathogenic avian H5N1 influenza A viruses that can be efficiently transmitted by respiratory droplets resulted in a heated debate about the risks and benefits of conducting and publishing such forced evolution research. The work is referred to as on gain of function (GOF) research, or Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC). DURC with microbes raises special issues concerning biosafety, biosecurity, and potential limits to the freedom of research. How should we balance the freedom of the individual scientist, the interest in unlimited communication of research results, and the interest of society not to be exposed to avoidable or potentially uncontrollable risks?
Different governmental and institutional regulations or codes, both national and international, provide frameworks and guidance that in most cases were developed in response to particular discoveries. The rapid development of biomedical research including genome editing and synthetic biology creates the need for a broader agreement on potential limits to certain experiments that can lead to harm. New international codes and regulations need to be discussed and adapted in an open exchange between scientists, governmental and research institutions as well as representatives of scientific societies and public stakeholders.