Artificial Organisms, Synthetic Viruses
In 2002 scientists from the University of New York at Stony Brook
made history. Using the genetic blueprint of the polio
virus as their guide, they downloaded the
required sequences from the internet
and stitched these sequences together using well-known
splicing techniques. The result was the
world's first totally artificial virus, created
not via natural reproduction but via cookbook. This
synthetic polio virus was indistinguishable from its natural cousins and completely viable.
Did the Stony Brook team succeed in creating synthetic life?
This is a grey zone and a matter for debate.
Viruses, by definition, can not reproduce outside of their host.
They are essentially naked genetic material wrapped in a protein coat. Their
life-cycle requires them to take over another cell, inject
their genes into the host's chromosomes and in
this manner redirect the cell's protein manufacturing
capabilities into the production of more viruses.
Only in this fashion can viruses reproduce. Thus,
in a deep sense, viruses are incomplete organisms.
Bacteria, on the other hand, are not merely their DNA.
A bacterial cell has a complex array of
other structures that support its metabolism and allow it to live an independent existence.
For this reason, creating artificial
bacteria would be orders of magnitude more
complex than creating a virus. Even so, in
principle there is no reason why the
methodologies used on viruses can not one day be
scaled up to larger and more complex organisms.
In fact, work towards this goal is proceeding very quickly.
Scientists at TIGR (The Institute for Genomic Research) are deconstructing
the simplest bacterium known, Mycoplasma genitalium. Given its
benign habitat - the human urogenital tract - this bacterium has shed genes
over its long evolution to the point where only 470 are required.
Thus it makes a perfect template for creating a basic synthetic life-form.
Work is going on to achieve this goal. (Although some might question
the wisdom of creating an artificial bacterium based off one that natively inhabits
human beings, a 1999 review of this program by a panel of religious figures
and ethicists conveniently turned up no fundamental objections).
Future advances, ethics and philosophical questions about life aside,
why was the Stony Brook experiment conducted in the first place?
The reasons were quite practical.
Simply put, viruses have an increasingly productive role in biotechnology.
For example, modified viruses, in which the disease-causing elements
have been switched off, could be used to ferry
useful genes into a target organism. A synthetic virus
allows full control of all aspects of the
genome, allowing the virus to be completely
tailored to the required task. Thus this experiment
was a very important accomplishment enabling future
progress towards improved therapies and medicines.
Of course, viruses are good for other uses as well.
For example, they are very good at killing people.
Thus this experiment - while fully ethical and
valid from the scientific perspective - also was an
important marker from the bioweapon vantage point.
It adds a new and incredibly potent tool to the
development of germ arsenals. It serves notice
that is now possible to create
fully artificial bioweapons, specifically tailored to
particular effects, modes of transmissions and targets.
Imagine this scenario: in the near future, in some scrubby backwater,
a dictator or terrorist leader tells his biological technician that
he'd like a virus tailored to just kill members
of a particular ethnic group. The virus should
be 100% lethal and easily transmissible by air and water. In
addition, the virus should be immune to all known anti-virals.
Finally, the virus should be invisible to current
detection methods, hardy, and easily weaponized and spread.
The technician fires up his web browser and goes shopping
for gene sequences.
These sequences, technically known as oligomers,
are easily available in internet databases.
These databases are growing exponentially
as laboratories around the world
isolate and characterize more sequences.
The technician picks and chooses; a virulence gene there,
some hardiness patterns here, some oligomers known to
produce pathogenic results biased towards the target
group over there. Finding a suitable collection he
combines them and stuffs the completed RNA into a generic viral envelope.
He then replicates the resulting virus and hands the final product
over to his leader. Pleased, the leader gives the hard-working
technician a bonus gift certificate redeemable at
McDonalds, a camel and two new wives.
Is this reality yet? Not quite, but neither is it science fiction.
The techniques to accomplish such work are still not widely known,
nor are all the required oligomers necessarily yet available.
It will probably take a few years before critical mass is
reached and the scenario above becomes an everyday reality.
Even so, the technological foundations have been established.
As the past few years have proved, biotechnology is rushing forwards
with unstoppable momentum.
What is top-echelon research by elite labs one day becomes
commonplace manipulation by average technicians the next.
The trend is clear and inevitable.
In the meantime, as defenders of these kinds of experiments
rightly point out, there are
far easier and lower-tech ways
apocalyptic biological weapons.
It is much more likely that
billions will die from one of these modified natural agents than
from a fully artificial weapon.
Apparently this thought is meant to be comforting.
Building a Polio Virus from Scratch
BBC: The First Synthetic Virus Created