Home' Technology Review : March April 2006 Contents 50 FEATURE STORY
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presenter said, Of course, modi cation of the methyl group
at C7 completely eliminates memory. Next slide, please. "
The age of bioweaponeering is just dawning: almost all of
the eld s potential development lies ahead.
The recent report by the National Academies described
many unpleasant scenarios: in addition to psychotropic
pathogens, the academicians imagine the misuse of "RNA
interference" to perturb gene expression, of nanotechnology
to deliver toxins, and of viruses to deliver antibodies that
could target ethnic groups.
This last is by no means ridiculous. Microbiologist Mark
Wheelis at the University of California, Davis, who works
with the Washington-based Center for Ar ms Control and
Non-Proliferation, notes in an article for Arms Control Today,
"Engineering an ethnic-speci c weapon targeting humans
is...di cult, as human genetic variability is very high both
within and between ethnic groups...but there is no reason
to believe that it will not eventually be possible."
But commentators have focused on speculative perils for
decades. While the threats they describe are plausible, dire
forecasts have become a ritual---a way to avoid more imme-
diate problems. Already, in 2006, much could be done.
Popov s myelin autoimmunity weapon could be repli-
cated by bioterrorists. It would be no easy feat: while the
technological requirements are relatively slight, the scienti c
knowledge required is considerable. At the very least, ter-
rorists would have to employ a real scientist as well as lab
technicians trained to manage DNA synthesizers and tend
pathogens. They would also have to nd some way to dis-
perse their pathogens. The Soviet Union "weaponized" bio-
logical agents by transforming them into ne aerosols that
could be sprayed over large areas. This presents engineering
problems of an industrial kind, possibly beyond the ability
of any substate actor. But bioterrorists might be willing to
infect themselves and walk through crowded airports and
train stations: their coughs and sni es would be the bombs
of their terror campaign.
Di cult as it may still be, garage-lab bioengineering
is getting easier every year. In the vanguard of those who
are calling attention to biotechnology s potential for abuse
is George Church, Harvard Medical School Professor of
Genetics. It was Church who announced in December 2004
that his research team had developed a new high-throughput
synthesizer capable of constructing in one pass a DNA mole-
cule 14,500 bases long.
Church says his DNA synthesizer could make vaccine and
phar maceutical production vastly more e cient. But it could
also enable the manufacture of the genomes of all the vir uses
on the U.S. government s "select agents" list of bioweapons.
Church fears that starting with only the constituent chemical
reagents and the DNA sequence of one of the select agents,
someone with su cient knowledge might construct a lethal
virus. The smallpox virus variola, for instance, is approxi-
mately 186,000 bases long---just 13 smaller DNA molecules to
be synthesized with Church s technology and bound together
into one viral genome. To generate infectious particles, the
synthetic variola would then need to be "booted" into opera-
tion in a host cell. None of this is trivial; nevertheless, with
the requisite knowledge, it could be done.
I suggested to Church that someone with the requisite
knowledge might not need his cutting-edge technology to
do har m. A secondhand machine could be purchased from
a website like eBay or LabX.com for around $5,000. Alter-
natively, the components---mostly o -the-shelf electronics
and plumbing---could be assembled with a little more e ort
for a similar cost. Construction of a DNA synthesizer in this
fashion would be undetectable by intelligence agencies.
The older-generation machine would construct only oligo-
nucleotides, which would then have to be stitched together
to function as a complete gene, so only small genes could be
synthesized. But small genes can be used to kill people.
"People have trouble maintaining the necessary ultrapure
approach even with commercial devices---but you de nitely
could do some things," Church acknowledged.
What things? Again, Serguei Popov s experience at Bio-
preparat is instructive. In 1981, Popov was ordered by Lev
Sandakhchiev, Vector s chief, to synthesize fragments of
smallpox. "I was against this project," Popov told me. "I
thought it was an extremely blunt, stupid approach." It
amounted to a pointlessly di cult stunt, he explained, to
impress the Soviet military; when his researchers acquired
real smallpox samples in 1983, the program was suspended.
A closely related program that Popov had started, however,
continued after he departed Vector for Biopreparat s Oblensk
facility in the mid-1980s. This project used the poxvir us vac-
cinia, the relatively harmless relative of variola used as a vac-
"I was in charge of new projects. Often, it was my responsibility to
develop the project, and if I couldn't, that would be my problem.
I couldn't say, 'No, I won't do it.' Because, then, what about your
children? What about your family?"
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