When the journal Science reported in July of 2002 that a team of scientists had built an infectious virus from scratch, the news generated an instant media stir. But was the response due to an accurate recognition of a marvelous and potentially frightening technical feat, or did the suggestion that bioterrorists might exploit this same technology merely encourage journalistic hype and create something of a storm in a teacup?
The answer to this question is not obvious at all. But if you find yourself inclining toward the teacup scenario then I would argue that this is one exceptionally large teacup that you are prepared to overlook.
Yes, you could counter with the observation that polio virus, the microbe selected by the team for construction, is a genetic featherweight. A paltry 7700 chemical bases completely define its tiny genome. In contrast, you point out, the genome of the smallpox virus (which everyone *knows* is the bioterrorists weapon of choice) is more than twenty times the size, and represents a far tougher challenge. "Why," you declare in closing, "I even heard some smart fellow remark a few years back that all that's required to cobble together polio virus from scratch is a graduate student, a synthesizer and three months' laboratory time."
All true, of course.
Even if he did slightly understate the degree of engineering challenge involved, Konstantin M. Chumakov, a virologist at the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, appears to have quite admirably forecast the 2002 virus assembly work of virologist Eckard Wimmer and his two State University of New York colleagues.
So, yes, it is not as though we did not know this was coming. Some of us clearly did. Others have looked at the specifics of the experiment in question and, while knowing that polio virus is capable of delivering a knockout punch when introduced into the human body--causing in some cases paralysis and even death--nevertheless dismissed any potential abuse of the technique by falling back on the safety net of today's polio immunization programs.
Such complacency, unfortunately, is entirely ill-founded. Should poliomyelitis be declared eradicated in the U.S. (as it has been in Europe) and its vaccination programs stepped down as they were with smallpox, the virus could become a very effective weapon of terror. Deliberate and widespread contamination of public water supplies in New York City, for example, could present a cheap and simple alternative to conventional methods of terror. One can avoid entering skyscrapers, but almost everyone in America interacts with city water supplies on a daily basis.
Yet fear of polio contraction is really ancillary to the larger topic of man-made viruses.
When virologist Eckard Wimmer announced the work of his State University of New York group he quite deliberately drew attention to the fact that the polio genome had been downloaded by the researchers from a public database. In other words, anyone with an internet connection could have accessed the same information. Purportedly, the purpose of his experiment was to show that only motivation and laboratory experience separate the well-intentioned researcher from the aspiring evil-doer. But if Wimmer's attention-grabbing statements obscured the real object of his research (which was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense) he is nonetheless right about one thing: in the era of genome projects and open-source research methodology this recent addition to the molecular biologist's bag of tricks fully deserves some serious attention.
If Wimmer's work represents a bright red flag then the following should really raise some eyebrows. Using my browser, I was able to connect to the GenBank public repository of molecular sequence information and retrieve a substantial part of the genome of the microbe responsible for the most devastating human pandemic of the twentieth century.
ATG GAG GCA AGA CTA CTG GTC TTG TTA TGT
Thus, the first 10 words in the genetic characterization of a critically important surface protein in the 1918 Spanish influenza virus, a microbe that swept the globe in just six short months and left upward of 40 million people dead in its wake. Interestingly enough, while we still know very little about the mechanisms behind its extraordinary virulence, what can be said is that at 14,000 bases in length, the influenza genome is scarcely twice as large as that found in the polio virus. Now sequenced in its entirety--see the genome sequencing effort of Jeffery Taubenberger and colleagues--I feel that I can at last predict with some confidence that all that shall be required to cobble together the 1918 strain of influenza from scratch is a graduate student, a synthesizer and three months' laboratory time.
Leonard Crane is a novelist who has explored the coming age of virotechnology in his science thriller Ninth Day of Creation.