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Last Updated

05 Jan 2003

Source: New York Times, July 18, 2002.

Synthetic Bioterror

Nobody who studies viruses and their genomes seemed surprised last week when researchers announced that they had synthesized a polio virus by using publicly available genetic information and chemical sequences ordered by mail. Even so, the feat points to yet another avenue that sophisticated terrorists might take to threaten unprotected civilians. The danger should not be exaggerated -- it is not imminent -- but the fact that bio-weapons might eventually be synthesized from off-the-shelf chemicals suggests the need for additional safeguards against malicious use of biotechnology.

The scientists, based at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, created their synthetic virus by modeling it on the genetic sequence for the polio virus, which can be obtained from a public database on the Internet. They ordered short stretches of DNA in the proper chemical order from a commercial company, stitched those chunks together and transformed them into a polio virus that could reproduce itself and paralyze mice.

The Pentagon sponsored the research as part of a program to develop countermeasures against bio-weapons. Although the work has been criticized as an irresponsible stunt, it sounds a useful warning and should cause no great harm. Most experts agree that polio would not make a good terrorist weapon. Much of the American population has been protected by vaccination, and only a small percentage of unprotected people who are infected become paralyzed or die.

The feat raises the question whether terrorists might some day be able to synthesize more lethal viruses. That would be harder to do, as other dangerous pathogens, such as Ebola, are larger and more complex. Terrorists would probably find it far easier to work with a naturally occurring strain than to create the virus from scratch.

The chief exception might be smallpox, which is supposed to be held only in the United States and Russia, under guard, and thus might be hard for a terrorist to obtain. But even in that case, it might be easier to modify cowpox or monkeypox than to synthesize the whole smallpox genome, which is one of the largest and most complex.

Synthetic viruses seem less immediate a worry than another anthrax attack or an attack with natural pathogens. But the synthesis of polio underscores how fast biotechnology is progressing, for good or potential ill. It is not too soon for leaders of science and industry to start pondering whether steps can be taken to keep the chemical ingredients of dangerous pathogens out of the hands of terrorists.