- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Maybe bioterrorism should be considered more seriously. Things are happening in the labs. In mid-2002 I wrote about Dr. Eckard Wimmer of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who assembled a functioning polio virus starting with polio’s DNA sequence and commercial chemicals. This is scary. If you can make a simple virus today, soon you’ll probably be able to make lots of others. Said Nature, the science magazine, (July 12, 2002) “The gene sequences for Ebola, influenza, smallpox, HIV and many other viruses are publicly available on the Internet. Wimmer argues that it could now be open season for rogue virus engineers.” How did Dr. Wimmer build the virus? A lot of viruses are just strands of DNA. DNA consists of double strands of what are called nucleotides, which, perhaps unfortunately, are well understood by biochemists. Human DNA contains four kinds of nucleotide, specifically ones that contain guanine, adenine, thymine or cytosine. A strand of DNA can be written as a sequence of A, C, T, and G: for example, CCATGAGGC. Why is this important? Because it is really simple. Biochemists for a long time have been able to “sequence” DNA. Sequencing means making a list of the nucleotides in order. Scientists also know how to stick nucleotides together in a given order. Nucleotides are for sale at biological supply houses. If you know the sequence of a virus, you can make it in your lab. That’s scary. It isn’t as easy as I make it sound — this year. Your high-school student isn’t going to cook up smallpox in the garage — this year. In November, Craig Venter and his group at the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, in Rockville, put together another virus, and did it much faster than Dr. Wimmer. Says the human-genetics Web site Hum-Molgen: “The IBEA researchers assembled the 5,386 base pair bacteriophage oX174 (phi X), from short, single strands of synthetically produced, commercially available DNA. …” Translated into English, this means they built a virus that attacks bacteria. It isn’t dangerous to humans, and the researchers are perfectly legitimate and responsible scientists trying to do good things for humanity. But they built another virus, and did it faster than ever. The nature of technology is that what is a remarkable feat this year becomes a common subject of graduate research in five years. It then goes into industrial use and pretty soon undergrads are doing it for lab projects. As a technology becomes mainstream, the number of people and institutions that can do it grows rapidly and you lose control. Unfortunately, information collected for good purposes can be used for bad. Virologists and molecular geneticists know a lot about just what parts of viruses and bacteria make them dangerous. This knowledge is also useful to anyone trying to design a dangerous bug. It’s a bit like Legos: When you have all the parts, you can snap them together to make just about anything. We’re collecting the parts. In bioterrorism, a marked imbalance exists between offense and defense. Hospitals are not set up to deal with huge numbers of dying patients. If (or when) any decent lab can string together something as virulent as, say, smallpox, then it isn’t going to be possible to prevent.

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