- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2002

I was reading Scientific American, a magazine of left-wing politics and occasional science. I ran across a small blurb about Eckhard Wimmer of the State University of New York at Stonybrook. He and some other folks had built a polio virus, starting with boring, mail-order chemicals. And it worked. It infected mice.
Which is just real interesting. In fact, it's scary.
First you have to think what a virus is. Basically it's a long strand of DNA or RNA. Some are long, loose strands, like Ebola. Some glob into a ball and have protein coats around them. At bottom they are strands of ribonucleic acids, the stuff that tells cells what to do.
DNA is a sort of double chain of little chemical building blocks called nucleotides. Everybody in biochemistry understands them, and they are widely available. They're not evil. They're like nails. You can buy them.
Think of them as beads on strings. They come in four colors, so to speak: cytosine, guanine, adenine and thymine. The language is technoglop, but the point is that if you string them together in the same order as natural DNA, the result is indistinguishable from natural DNA.
Many viruses have been "sequenced." That is, we know what the order of nucleotides is in them.
Mr. Wimmer, to show what bioterrorists might do, downloaded the sequence for polio from the Internet and built the virus, using chemicals you can get from a biological supply house.
The upshot: You don't need a culture of a virus to release it into the world. In principle, all you need is the DNA sequence. Then you can build it on your own. Think psychotic graduate students.
Putting it otherwise, any virus whose sequence is known isn't extinct. And governments lose their monopolies on sequenced viral pathogens.
Huge caveat: It ain't that easy with all viruses. Polio seems to be easier to do than, say, smallpox. But that's today, and molecular genetics is just booming.
Now, get on Google, and search on "smallpox" and "sequencing." The data exist. Sequences for smallpox are known.
Smallpox is 30 percent fatal. If your population is 300 million, that's about a 100 million dead. Nobody is much vaccinated these days. Worth thinking about.
Second interesting point: The creation of life.
Are viruses alive? Tricky question. On one hand, they are just boring polymers, drab chemical compounds that usually just sit there if they aren't inside a living cell. On the other hand, inside a cell they take over the cellular machinery, make multiple copies of themselves, and often explode the cell so the new viruses can go infest other cells. They sound kind of alive. Whether they are predators or poisons isn't real clear.
If they are alive, then building one in a lab amounts to the creation of life. So far, life has always come from other life. Live women give birth to live babies, live trees produce live seeds that grow into live plants. Nobody has done it from scratch.
Creating something that was actually alive from something that actually wasn't would be of philosophical importance.
On the other hand, if a virus isn't alive, which is certainly an arguable position at this point, then recreating one would be like copying an aspirin tablet: whoop-de-doo. If I knew what life really was, I'd take my Nobel prize and go live in Tahiti.
Synthesizing viruses creeps up on a massive question: Is life just the juxtaposition of complicated chemical reactions? Or is there more involved?
If you could take a cat and copy it, atom for atom, until you had two identical beasts would the copied cat be alive, chase mice and miss its litter box? Would it be a real cat? Or would it be a mass of gunch that you would want to throw out as soon as possible?

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