Nowadays, life can be created from scratch through the practice of synthetic biology. Anything from advanced biofuels to human organs can be man-made by synthetic biologists. It is truly an amazing science. However, the technologies also have the capacity to be abused and are therefore as dangerous as they are helpful. For example, it could potentially be used for biological warfare.
Extinct Virus Revival
Canadian researchers managed to revive an extinct horsepox virus on a shoestring budget, by using mail-order DNA. The scary thing is, this relatively inexpensive technique could be used by anyone. Many fear that someone could even bring back something like smallpox, one of the most feared diseases in humanity’s history. Which was exactly (one of) the point(s) the research leader, virologist David Evans of the University of Alberta, wanted to make. He even admitted that one of the reasons he undertook the project was to prove that it could be done.
Apart from that, the team had good intentions as well. Above all, what they really wanted to accomplish was the creation of better vaccines and even cancer treatments. Although, what they ended up doing (apart from making everyone paranoid) was proving that it wouldn’t necessarily require a lot of time, money, and even biomedical skill or knowledge to synthetically fabricate a poxvirus.
Scientifically, the achievement isn’t a big surprise because back in 2002 virologists assembled the much smaller poliovirus from scratch; so researchers knew that someday it would be possible to synthesize poxviruses. But the new work — in addition to the poliovirus reconstitution before it — raises troubling questions about how terrorists or rogue states could use modern biotechnology. If a small scientific team, with little specialized knowledge, did it in half a year and it cost them only around $100,000, it’s easy to assume it wouldn’t be much of a hassle for a terrorist group to do it too.
Paul Keim, a researcher from Northern Arizona University who has spent most of his career studying another potential bioweapon (anthrax), said:
“There is always an experiment or event that triggers closer scrutiny, and this sounds like it should be one of those events where the authorities start thinking about what should be regulated.”
Nicholas Evans, a bioethicist, believes that new rules need to be put in place. He said:
“Soon with synthetic biology … we’re going to talk about viruses that never existed in nature in the first place. Someone could create something as lethal as smallpox and as infectious as smallpox without ever creating smallpox.“
Evans acknowledges that the research could be used for good or bad. He reignited a powerful debate in the biomedical science community when he told Science:
“Have I increased the risk by showing how to do this? I don’t know. Maybe yes. But the reality is that the risk was always there. The world just needs to accept the fact that you can do this and now we have to figure out what is the best strategy for dealing with that.”
Regarding the research paper he published in the scientific journal Plos One about the study, Evans says he “provided sufficient details so that someone knowledgeable could follow what we did, but not a detailed recipe.” The paper describes how they pieced together segments of DNA in order to bring back the previously eradicated virus called horsepox. It created quite a stir in the scientific community.
The good news is that most nation states are committed to the idea that biological weapons have no place in modern warfare. In December 2016, the 178 countries who have signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention reiterated their stance that there are no circumstances in which this level of force would be warranted. So maybe everyone is worried about Evans research paper for no reason? We can only hope so because eradicating smallpox, one of the deadliest diseases in history, took humanity decades and cost billions of dollars.