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July 11, 2002
New! Viruses So Potent, You'd Swear They Were Homemade!
The big science story at the moment seems to be the SUNY-Stonybrook polio virus synthesis.
To tell the truth, I thought this sort of experiment had already been done. I'm not at all surprised that it worked, and only a bit surprised that it worked as well as it appears to have. Viruses (especially the smaller ones) are rather simple things. Synthesizing the needed genetic material isn't a big obstacle (easier, again, for the smaller viruses.) The Stony Brook team worked out a good system to go from the naked RNA of the polio virus to functioning viruses themselves, and that step is to me the main novelty.
Anyone who uses this as a platform to rant about creation of life is going to have to defend the notion that viruses are alive. And that's a tough one - how can something that doesn't eat, doesn't excrete, and can be disassembled and reconstituted count as alive? A virus is a little von Neumann machine, emphasis on machine.
Using this as a platform to rant about bioweapons is a bit more excusable. The sequence of polio virus has been a matter of public record for a long time now, though, and the road to this experiment could have been taken by any number of competent researchers. Here is a report from 1997 pointing out that very thing. The report (from Columbia U) stated:
"Even if total virus destruction could be accomplished, the small size of the poliovirus genome, whose sequence is known and whose complementary DNA is infectious, would make it possible for a terrorist to synthesize a new stock."
That's five years ago, folks, which is a long time in molecular biology. If this experiment serves to show people how hard containment of knowledge is, then the lesson has been worthwhile. Since genies don't go back into their bottles, it's better if we find out all we can about the ones that are running around.
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