A Pox to Blight With

I’ve decided that I support the exploration of Mars. I want to go first. And hide there, in a sealed space suit.

I was boring myself to death on one of those diabolical exercise machines at Gold’s, and in desperation reading Scientific American, a magazine of left-wing politics and occasional science. I ran across a small blurb about Eckhard Wimmer, of the State University of New York at Stonybrook. * He and some other folk had built artificial polio virus, said SciAm, starting with mail-order chemicals. And it worked. It infected mice.

Which is just real interesting. In fact, it’s scary.

First you have to think what a virus is. Basically it’s a long strand of DNA or RNA. Some viruses are long loose strands, like Ebola. Some ball into a glob and have protein coats around them. At bottom they are strands of ribonucleic acids, the stuff that tells cells what to do.

DNA is a sort of double chain of little chemical building blocks called nucleotides. The details aren’t critical here. The important thing is that everybody in biochemistry understands nucleotides, and they are widely available. They’re not evil. They’re like nails. You can buy them.

Think of them as beads on strings. They come in four colors, so to speak, cytosine, guanine, adenine, and thymine. (OK, and uracil in RNA.) The language is technoglop, but the point is that if you string them together in the same order as natural DNA, the result is indistinguishable from natural DNA.

Maybe you’re thinking, “So what, Fred? Why are you doing this to me? Do I look like a chemistry geek? ” Wait a paragraph or two.

Many viruses have been “sequenced.” That is, we know what the order of nucleotides is in them.

Wimmer, to show what bioterrorists might do, downloaded the sequence for polio from the Internet, and built the virus, using chemicals you can get from a biological supply house. When he injected it into the brains of mice (mental note to self: don’t be a mouse) the beasts duly got polio. The artificial strain wasn’t as virulent as the natural variety, but it functioned.

Why is this important? Because it means that you don’t need a culture of a virus to release it into the world. In principle, all you need is the DNA sequence and some lab equipment that is getting better by the week. Then you can build viruses on your own. Think psychotic graduate students.

Putting it otherwise, any virus whose sequence is known isn’t extinct. Further, when people can build viruses from sequences, governments cannot have monopolies on sequenced viral pathogens.

Today in various journals of military affairs you see assertions that smallpox, officially pronounced extinct many years ago, exists in labs in Russia, maybe England, and America. People express concern that it might somehow escape or get into the hands of terrorists. But, if viruses can be strung together like tinker toys, it doesn’t matter whether these countries have a sequenced virus. Anybody, before too long anyway, will be able to make it.

Being the endlessly dutiful reporter that I am, I got on the horn to Stonybrook to check the story out, left a message with the PR woman, and never heard back. Maybe Wimmer’s next project can be to synthesize a functioning PR woman. Judging by comments on the web from members of Wimmer’s team, smallpox would be trickier to make than polio, and maybe impossible?today. But molecular biology is just booming along.

Now, get on Google, and search on “smallpox” and “sequencing.” Bingo. “Although the complete genomic sequence of selected isolates of variola virus is known?.” **

Smallpox is thirty percent fatal. It’s also highly contagious, as anthrax is not. If your population is 300 million, that’s about a hundred million dead. Those who don’t die end up looking as if they had. Nobody is much vaccinated these days. Incredibly effective vectors for viral transmission today exist. (The major one is called a “Boeing 747.”) The public-health system could not remotely handle so many patients. Worth thinking about.

Second interesting point: The creation of life.

Are viruses alive? Tricky question. On one hand, they are just boring polymers, drab chemical compounds that usually just sit there if they aren’t inside a living cell. On the other hand, inside a cell they take over the cellular machinery, make multiple copies of themselves, and often explode the cell so the new viruses can go infest other cells. They sound kind of alive. Whether they are predators or poisons isn’t real clear.

If they are alive (whatever that means, and the answer isn’t clear either), then building one in a lab amounts to the creation of life. So far, life has always come from other life. Live women give birth to live babies, live trees produce live seeds that grow into live plants. Nobody has done it from scratch.

This is different from the question of whether life originally evolved by accident from some postulated primeval soup. Copying a ’57 Chevy differs from inventing one. Yet creating something that was actually alive from something that actually wasn’t would be, this column thinks, of philosophical importance.

On the other hand, if a virus isn’t alive, which is certainly an arguable position at this point, then recreating one would be like copying an aspirin tablet: Whoopee-doo. If I knew what life really was, I’d take my Nobel prize go live in Tahiti.

Synthesizing viruses creeps up on a massive question: Is life just the juxtaposition of complicated chemical reactions? Or is there more involved?

If you could take a cat, and copy it somehow, atom for atom (which is wildly impossible, but never mind), until you had two physically indistinguishable beasts?would the copied cat be alive, chase mice, and miss its litter box? Would it be a real cat? Or would it be a mass of gunch that you would want to throw out as soon as possible?

Dunno. I’m just a working-stiff columnist. I don’t get paid for cosmic truth. But Mars makes more and more sense.

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