Impact of Synthetic Genomics on the Threat of Bioterrorism with Viral Agents
In 2002, a team of researchers at the State University of New York led by Eckard Wimmer assembled a DNA template for the RNA poliovirus using an internet-available nucleotide sequence and mail order synthetic oligonucleotides. Using a routine laboratory procedure, they then converted the DNA into RNA and produced an infectious, neurovirulent poliovirus capable of paralyzing and killing mice.1 This work demonstrated clearly for the first time the feasibility of chemically synthesizing a pathogen knowing only its nucleotide sequence. Some called the work “irresponsible,” and there was widespread speculation in the press that bioterrorists might use the technology to create more virulent viruses, such as smallpox, from published gene sequences or create novel, more lethal viruses. Wimmer countered that “an evildoer would not use that very tedious method to synthesize a virus. That terrorist would rather use already existing viruses in nature.” 2 Indeed, all viruses, from the common cold to the deadliest, originate in nature, being identified and isolated from infected humans or animals or the virus’s animal or insect vector. However, the rapidly advancing technology of whole genome assembly (“synthetic genomics”) is making the chemical synthesis of viral genomes a much less tedious endeavor.3 This paper will explore the potential impact of synthetic genomics technology on the risks of a bioterrorist attack using viral pathogens.
Technical report in support of Sloan Foundation study on DNA synthesis and governance.
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