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Friday, 12 July, 2002, 09:18 GMT 10:18 UK
Q&A: First synthetic virus
Scientists have created the first synthetic virus, a laboratory-built version of the polio pathogen. BBC News Online examines the significance of this experiment.

What exactly have the researchers done?

The team from the University of New York at Stony Brook constructed the virus from scratch using the genetic blueprint of the polio agent. They followed a "recipe" they downloaded from the internet and used gene sequences from a mail-order supplier.

What is the significance of what they have done?

The polio virus
The polio virus: A small start
This is the first step to humans creating artificial life in the laboratory. Many researchers would not regard a virus as being "alive", as it depends on the machinery of a living, host cell to replicate. But the Stony Brook experiment is a beginning that could eventually lead to synthetic microbes partially or wholly constructed by scientists.

Why would anyone want to do this?

Although viruses are popularly seen as merely agents of disease, they also have a productive role in biotechnology. Modified versions of viruses, in which the disease-causing elements have been "switched off", can be used to carry useful genes into an organism.

Viruses could be important tools in future gene therapy, carrying genes into the cells of sick people to correct or replace the ones that have gone wrong. A synthetic virus might make this task easier by providing greater flexibility of design.

Isn't there a danger that a terrorist organisation will use this technology to synthesise a super-pathogen, or "biobomb", to terrorise society?

It is a theoretical possibility but the technology as it currently stands is very immature and few people have the expertise to do what the Stony Brook team has done.

If a terrorist organisation really wanted to create panic on a mass scale there are far easy ways to do it - witness 11 September. In any case, why go to the trouble of trying to build a virus when there are already plenty of natural, dangerous pathogens available.

Where is this research going in the long-term?

Scientists would like to develop the technology to synthesise bacteria in the laboratory. These microbes would be engineered to manufacture useful drug compounds, such as new antibiotics.

These new organisms would be more efficient at this task than the modified microbes currently in use. They would also have novel uses, such as breaking down the chemicals at the site of a toxic spill, for example.

So what is holding the scientists back?

There are difficulties in synthesising long segments of nucleic acid - the "life molecule" DNA and its chemical cousin RNA. Doing it on the scale of a tiny virus like polio is one thing; its RNA code written out in full is not much more than 7,000 letters long.

Building a more complex genome such as that for a bacterium requires another leap in technology - the ability to accurately synthesise a genome that is hundreds of thousands (even millions) of letters long.

Also, just having the genome is not the same as having a cell. Viruses at their simplest are just stands of RNA with a few proteins attached. Bacteria, on the other hand, have complex cellular machinery that act on the instruction of the genes.

Building all that machinery from scratch remains science fiction. Nonetheless, you could envisage scientists putting their synthesised genomic "engine" in the "empty" cell of an existing microbe.

There must be ethical implications to all this, surely?

Indeed. The idea that we should create artificial life raises major questions for society. Scientists have been engaged in something called the Minimal Genome Project, which aims to find the smallest number of genes that will sustain life and then attempt to construct that organism from scratch in the lab.

So far, they have worked out the gene number - it is about 300 - but they have promised to hold off building the synthetic cell until there has been a frank and public discussion of the issues involved. It will not happen tomorrow anyway because the technology is not yet that advanced. But it is clear from the Stony Brook experiment, it may eventually be so.

The BBC's Christine McGourty
"Public policy research officials will be looking at this with alarm"
Dr Eckard Wimmer
"A good bioterrorist could have put these steps together"
See also:

11 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
21 Feb 01 | San Francisco
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