Viruses, that is.  Canadian researchers revived an extinct horsepox virus last year on a shoestring budget, by using mail-order DNA.

The researchers bought overlapping DNA fragments from a commercial synthetic DNA company. Each fragment was about 30,000 base pairs long, and because they overlapped, the team was able to “stitch” them together to complete the genome of the 212,000-base-pair horsepox virus. When they introduced the genome into cells that were already infected with a different kind of pox virus, the cells began to produce virus particles of the infectious horsepox variety.

Why this matters: It’s getting easier all the time to synthesize existing pathogens (like horsepox) and to create exciting new deadly ones (with CRISPR/cas9). Crisis of Control explores the consequences of where that trend is leading. Inevitably it will be possible one day for average people to do it in their garages.

This team didn’t even use their own facility for make the DNA fragments, but ordered them through the mail.  There’s some inconsistency about how easy it is to get nasty stuff that way. Here’s a quote from a 2002 article:

Right now, the companies making DNA molecules such as
the ones used to recreate the polio virus do not check what
their clients are ordering. “We don’t care about that,” says
a technician at a company that ships DNA to more than 40
countries around the world, including some in the Middle
East.

Things may be better now; apparently now at least the reputable western companies do care.  What about do-it-yourself?  What I can’t tell from the article is whether their mail order was for double stranded DNS (dsDNA) or oligonucleotides (“oligos”), and here I am exposing my ignorance of molecular biology because I am sure it is obvious to someone in that field what it must have been. What I do know is that there are no controls on what you can make with oligos because you can get those synthesizers for as little as a few hundred bucks off eBay. But you then have to turn them into dsDNA to get the genome you’re looking for, and that requires some nontrivial laboratory work.

We can assume that procedure will get easier, and it has in fact already been replicated in a commercially available synthesizer that will produce dsDNA. The last time I looked, one such machine had recently become available, but implemented cryptographic security measures that meant that it would not make anything “questionable” until the manufacturer had provided an unlocking code.

So far, so good, although it’s hard for me to imagine people at the CDC find it easy to sleep. But inevitably this will become easier. How do we have to evolve to disengage this threat?

 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Posted by Peter Scott

Peter Scott’s résumé reads like a Monty Python punchline: half business coach, half information technology specialist, half teacher, three-quarters daddy. After receiving a master’s degree in Computer Science from Cambridge University, he has worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an employee and contractor for over thirty years, helping advance our exploration of the Solar System. Over the years, he branched out into writing technical books and training. Yet at the same time, he developed a parallel career in “soft” fields of human development, getting certifications in NeuroLinguistic Programming from founder John Grinder and in coaching from the International Coaching Federation. In 2007 he co-created a convention honoring the centennial of the birth of author Robert Heinlein, attended by over 700 science fiction fans and aerospace experts, a unique fusion of the visionary with the concrete. Bridging these disparate worlds positions him to envisage a delicate solution to the existential crises facing humanity. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and two daughters, writing the Human Cusp blog on dealing with exponential change.

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