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Wednesday, 16 May, 2001, 23:51 GMT 00:51 UK
Biological weapons could be even deadlier
Soldiers in biological warfare kit BBC
Experts say biotechnology could be used to make more effective weapons
By BBC Science's Corinne Podger

Diseases such as anthrax and botulism have long been feared for their potential use as bio-weapons.

But researchers in the journal Nature say the pathogens responsible for these illnesses could be made even more deadly using the latest techniques in biotechnology.

Antibiotics BBC
At present anthrax can be treated with antibiotics
Earlier this year, scientists in Australia were working on a genetically based contraceptive to control the country's mouse plague.

But, in the process, they accidentally created an unusually deadly strain of mousepox, which is related to the human smallpox virus.

Lethal disease

In their journal paper, the researchers noted that if a similar genetic manipulation was done on smallpox virus, this lethal disease could be made even more dangerous.

The genetic experts warn that many other lethal pathogens could also be modified for use as devastating biological weapons.

Anthrax, for example, is already one of the world's most deadly diseases, but it can be treated using antibiotics.

Alistair Hay, a biological warfare expert at Leeds University, UK, says that the anthrax bacterium could be altered to resist antibiotics.

Genetic information

And work of this kind could be made easier as the genetic codes of more and more lethal bacteria and viruses are completed and published.

The genetic sequences of pathogens behind tuberculosis and cholera have already been published, and those responsible for anthrax and leprosy will be completed later this year.

But, Tim Read, one of the researchers sequencing anthrax, said there were benefits as well as risks in making genetic information about these disease-causing microbes public.

While access to genetic data might make it easier to produce more deadly versions of killer diseases, Dr Read said it was also stimulating vigorous research into new vaccines and drugs to treat them.

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