Building Artificial Viruses

In the past five years, new technology has made it easier to genetically modify microbes and even create new ones from scratch. Some worry that the developments could lead to novel and more dangerous kinds of bioterror threats.

FIVE YEARS LATER : Microbes Made From Scratch

Custom-Built Pathogens Raise Bioterror Fears

In his small lab, Eckard Wimmer recently examined a tray that held a newly created virus growing in a cellular broth.
In his small lab, Eckard Wimmer recently examined a tray that held a newly created virus growing in a cellular broth. (By Joby Warrick -- The Washington Post)

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By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 31, 2006


Eckard Wimmer knows of a shortcut terrorists could someday use to get their hands on the lethal viruses that cause Ebola and smallpox. He knows it exceptionally well, because he discovered it himself.

In 2002, the German-born molecular geneticist startled the scientific world by creating the first live, fully artificial virus in the lab. It was a variation of the bug that causes polio, yet different from any virus known to nature. And Wimmer built it from scratch.

The virus was made wholly from nonliving parts, using equipment and chemicals on hand in Wimmer's small laboratory at the State University of New York here on Long Island. The most crucial part, the genetic code, was picked up for free on the Internet. Hundreds of tiny bits of viral DNA were purchased online, with final assembly in the lab.

Wimmer intended to sound a warning, to show that science had crossed a threshold into an era in which genetically altered and made-from-scratch germ weapons were feasible. But in the four years since, other scientists have made advances faster than Wimmer imagined possible. Government officials, and scientists such as Wimmer, are only beginning to grasp the implications.

"The future," he said, "has already come."

Five years ago, deadly anthrax attacks forced Americans to confront the suddenly real prospect of bioterrorism. Since then the Bush administration has poured billions of dollars into building a defensive wall of drugs, vaccines and special sensors that can detect dangerous pathogens. But already, technology is hurtling past it. While government scientists press their search for new drugs for old foes such as classic anthrax, a revolution in biology has ushered in an age of engineered microbes and novel ways to make them.

The new technology opens the door to new tools for defeating disease and saving lives. But today, in hundreds of labs worldwide, it is also possible to transform common intestinal microbes into killers. Or to make deadly strains even more lethal. Or to resurrect bygone killers, such the 1918 influenza. Or to manipulate a person's hormones by switching genes on or off. Or to craft cheap, efficient delivery systems that can infect large numbers of people.

"The biological weapons threat is multiplying and will do so regardless of the countermeasures we try to take," said Steven M. Block, a Stanford University biophysicist and former president of the Biophysical Society. "You can't stop it, any more than you can stop the progress of mankind. You just have to hope that your collective brainpower can muster more resources than your adversaries'."

The Bush administration has acknowledged the evolving threat, and last year it appointed a panel of scientists to begin a years-long study of the problem. It also is building a large and controversial lab in Frederick, where new bioterrorism threats can be studied and tested. But overall, specific responses have been few and slow.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declined so far to police the booming gene-synthesis industry, which churns out made-to-order DNA to sell to scientists. Oversight of controversial experiments remains voluntary and sporadic in many universities and private labs in the United States, and occurs even more rarely overseas.

Bioterrorism experts say traditional biodefense approaches, such as stockpiling antibiotics or locking up well-known strains such as the smallpox virus, remain important. But they are not enough.

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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