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The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman



    Researchers announced on July 11 that infectious viruses can now be createdin the test tube of any modern laboratory. In fact, it has been done most recentlyat Stony Brook University (SBU), where biochemist Eckard Wimmer’#146;s teamhas generated active polio virus particles that are capable of infecting livinghost cells.

    According to Wimmer, the viruses were made based on ‘sequence’ informationpulled from scientific literature. The word ‘sequence’ refers to thearrangement of chemical base-pairs, which is the chemical spelling of a gene.By getting the ‘spelling’ of each gene in a tiny virus, it is possibleto string the genes together in the correct order so they exhibit emergent propertiesand are fully functional.

    Experts can now download a genetic blueprint from the Internet and use mail-ordermaterials to assemble a deadly virus.

    At a time when the word ‘bio-terrorism’ is a reality, the consequencesof this development are both alarming and encouraging, he added. It means thatscientists probably can create and prepare vaccines faster and more preciselyto fend off biological attacks.

    However, this also means anyone could manufacture viruses, or even alter them,potentially making them more dangerous.

    According to Wimmer, ready-made chunks of DNA were purchased from commercialsources, and the researchers took the instructions for piecing them togetherfrom literature available on the Internet.

    ‘If someone publishes the sequence of any old virus, you can chemicallyput together a DNA copy of that, and then create the virus,’ he said.

    ‘So with enough money, knowledge, and equipment, you can make any virusfor which you can determine the sequence.’

    The chemical instructions, including the DNA sequence information of many diseaseorganisms, are available on the Internet for scientific use, and more are beingadded as researchers pursue their work against disease.

    In the experiments at SBU, Wimmer and co-workers Jeronimo Cello and Aniko Paulordered small chunks of viral DNA, called oligonucleotides, and strung the chunkstogether.

    ‘The most important part of this work is the proof of principle,’Wimmer said. ‘This says that you can generate a virus from the writtensequence, and that has consequences.’

    James LeDuc, at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta,told the journal Science that ‘it is a little sobering to see that folksin the chemistry lab can basically create a virus from scratch.’

    Given the potential for bio-terrorism, Wimmer said government agencies couldmonitor what chunks of DNA are being ordered from commercial sources. This wouldallow the appropriate state authorities to keep track of those who are doingresearch on dangerous organisms capable of being used for bio-terrorism.

    In addition, he argued that an increasing ability to build viruses from scratchshould be helpful, allowing scientists ‘to intensify research on diseaseorganisms. Our work makes a safer world because it puts out notice that we cancope with this new danger [from bio-terrorism].’

    It should also help with research into various difficult diseases. Scientistsmay someday want to resurrect disease organisms that have been exterminated,seeking new weapons against disease. ‘There is a possibility that you couldchange the genome structure to get a milder virus for use as a vaccine,’Wimmer said.

    In their research at SBU, he said, that possibility has arisen. As part oftheir work, Cello, Paul and Wimmer introduced a few changes into polio’#146;sgenome. Unexpectedly, these seemed to weaken the virus, slowing its abilityto kill laboratory animals. ‘We discovered that it is much less virulent[compared to the ‘#145;wild type’#146; polio virus],’ Wimmer said. ‘Thatwas a pleasant surprise.’

    For now, it is still not possible to create wholly new viruses in the laboratory.

    ‘No one has been able to invent a virus; it’#146;s too complicated,’Wimmer added. ‘There is great complexity in the interactions of genes andproteins.’

    This technology, too, is not altogether new. As far back as 1981, biologistDavid Baltimore and his colleagues in Boston replicated a polio virus from agenetic template.

    ‘But we actually didn’#146;t use any template that nature had used before,’Wimmer said. ‘We produced it chemically, without a natural template.’

    Although this is still far from creating life in the laboratory, it is a stepin that direction. Viruses may only be considered living organisms when theyinteract with living host cells. As a general rule, viruses are considered tobe non-living organisms due to their inability to either replicate independentlyor to synthesize energetic, metabolic molecules.

    ‘Bio-terrorists didn’#146;t learn anything from us,’ Wimmer said.’Everything we did has been published before. We just put the steps together.

    Many laboratories could repeat what we have done.’

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