Tiny "Designer Microbes" - A Greater Terror WMD
It has been five years since the first of the Anthrax terror scares where all of us were made aware of the effectiveness of bioterrorism.
Since then, a new technology has made it easier to genetically modify microbes and even create new ones from scratch. One doesn't even need living material to make up a batch of "designer microbes" that could wreak havoc and create emotional terror - the war effect we worry about from nuclear "dirty bombs", but much easier to make up and dispatch.
Excerpts from a Washington Post article (free subscription).
How to Make a Virus
Wimmer's artificial virus looks and behaves like its natural cousin -- but with a far reduced ability to maim or kill -- and could be used to make a safer polio vaccine. But it was Wimmer's techniques, not his aims, that sparked controversy when news of his achievement hit the scientific journals.
As the creator of the world's first "de novo" virus -- a human virus, at that -- Wimmer came under attack from other scientists who said his experiment was a dangerous stunt. He was accused of giving ideas to terrorists, or, even worse, of inviting a backlash that could result in new laws restricting scientific freedom.
Wimmer's method starts with the virus's genetic blueprint, a code of instructions 7,441 characters long. Obtaining it is the easiest part: The entire code for poliovirus, and those for scores of other pathogens, is available for free on the Internet.
Armed with a printout of the code, Wimmer places an order with a U.S. company that manufactures custom-made snippets of DNA, called oglionucleotides. The DNA fragments arrive by mail in hundreds of tiny vials, enough to cover a lab table in one of Wimmer's three small research suites.
Using a kind of chemical epoxy, the scientist and his crew of graduate assistants begin the tedious task of fusing small snippets of DNA into larger fragments. Then they splice together the larger strands until the entire sequence is complete.
The final step is almost magical. The finished but lifeless DNA, placed in a broth of organic "juice" from mushed-up cells, begins making proteins. Spontaneously, it assembles the trappings of a working virus around itself.
The technology envisions new species of microbes built from the bottom up: "living machines from off-the-shelf chemicals" to suit the needs of science, said Jonathan Tucker, a bioweapons expert with the Washington-based Center for Non-Proliferation Studies.
"It is possible to engineer living organisms the way people now engineer electronic circuits," Tucker said. In the future, he said, these microbes could produce cheap drugs, detect toxic chemicals, break down pollutants, repair defective genes, destroy cancer cells and generate hydrogen for fuel.
In less than five years, synthetic biology has gone from a kind of scientific parlor trick, useful for such things as creating glow-in-the-dark fish, to a cutting-edge bioscience with enormous commercial potential, said Eileen Choffnes, an expert on microbial threats with the National Academies' Institute of Medicine. "Now the technology can be even done at the lab bench in high school," she said.