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Last Updated

11 Dec 2002

Source: Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2002.


Researcher Shows How Terrorists Could Create Deadly Pathogens


After laboring for more than a year to make polio virus from scratch, researcher Jeronimo Cello telephoned a scientific supply company in Iowa and ordered two long pieces of ready-made DNA. A few weeks after the pieces arrived in the mail, he became the first person to produce a simple form of life using only written genetic code as a starting point.

But Dr. Cello's success has some people worried. Terrorists, they say, could use similar techniques to create deadly pathogens simply by locating the gene data on the Internet and then ordering the materials through the mail. Eckard Wimmer, a virologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who oversaw Dr. Cello's work, says that the terrorists could synthesize other simple viruses, including the flu, HIV and Ebola, and eventually perhaps more sophisticated pathogens like smallpox . "Any well-trained graduate student could do it," Dr. Wimmer says.

The journal Science is publishing the polio-making recipe Friday, prompting criticism from some scientists. "I think this is irresponsible," says J. Craig Venter, formerly the head of the gene-sequencing company Celera Genomics Group and now the head of a nonprofit think tank in Rockville, Md. He says the work represents only a minor technical achievement but carries an alarmist message that could frighten the public and prompt legislators to put more controls on basic research. "It has the chance to hurt the entire scientific community," he says.

The polio project also raises important philosophical questions. Although viruses are considered a marginal form of life because they can't survive apart from a host, this appears to be the first time that scientists have created any life form in the laboratory starting only from a written blueprint of DNA letters.

Independent scientists agree that similar techniques could probably be used to make other viruses, but they question whether it would be possible to create more complex life forms such as bacteria, plants and animals. "The simplest bacteria has a million times more DNA than a virus, so it's a practical issue. But it does make you wonder if you could make something larger," says Ross Durland, head of research at Chromos Molecular Systems Inc. of British Columbia, which is studying how to use synthetic genes for medical purposes.

Dr. Wimmer says his work was supported starting in 1999 with about $160,000 from the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is known for funding blue-sky scientific projects with potential military consequences. Dr. Wimmer says he was serving as an adviser to the agency, known as Darpa, when administrators decided to fund his project as part of a program to study next-generation defenses against biological weapons.

But Darpa didn't disclose that the polio project was among its grants under the program, called the Unconventional Pathogen Countermeasures program. Dr. Wimmer says he isn't sure why the agency kept the project secret. A Darpa spokesman said not all the agency's work is posted on its Web site.

"It looks like the age of synthetic bioweapons is upon us," says Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit organization that monitors U.S. compliance with the international Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which bars the development of germ-based weapons. Mr. Hammond says the international community has been slow to recognize the threat posed by lab manipulations of viruses and other organisms.

Thanks to near-universal vaccination, the polio virus poses little danger in the hands of bioterrorists or others. According to the World Health Organization in Geneva, there were 600 cases of the paralyzing disease poliomyelitis in 10 countries in 2001, and the group has set 2005 as a target for wiping out the disease.

Recently, some public health officials have argued for the eradication of the known remaining stores of conquered viruses such as smallpox , samples of which are stored at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and in Russia, in order to permanently remove such threats. Experts say Dr. Wimmer's work appears to render such debates moot, because the genetic sequence of smallpox and other pathogens have already appeared on the Internet.

Dr. Cello began the SUNY project in 1999 after he joined Dr. Wimmer's laboratory from Argentina as a junior research scientist. He says the project was supposed to hone his skills in molecular biology and was only expected to take a few months.

Working alone, Dr. Cello began attempting to stitch together a complete copy of the 7,500 chemical units that make up polio's genetic complement. It was already known that genes copied from a live virus could produce new viral particles after being injected into a human cell. Dr. Cello's goal was to start with a copy of the genome synthesized out of DNA building blocks in the laboratory and build the chain piece by piece.

But building up the long chain of DNA from smaller pieces proved frustratingly difficult. Eventually, Dr. Cello simply ordered most of the completed sequence from a scientific supply house, Integrated DNA Technologies of Coralville, Iowa.

Like other viruses, polio virus unleashes its genetic payload into a human cell and then takes over the cell's machinery to make more copies of itself. With the viral genome in hand, Dr. Cello was able to harness that process to make millions of copies of live virus.

To help keep the laboratory ingredients out of terrorists' hands, Dr. Wimmer suggests that companies selling synthetic DNA should check orders against public databanks to identify any customers ordering sequences that match up with deadly microbes.