'Man-made, synthetic viruses with the ability to multiply by the millions are "very close" '
And biotech is supposed to be our front line of defence?!!
Making life from scratch is now 'imminent': From minimal genomes: Viruses the size of HIV are likely to come first
Margaret Munro National Post
Wednesday, February 21, 2001
SAN FRANCISCO - Scientists will soon be able to create viruses that never existed before, and bring extinct horrors such as smallpox back to life, says a leading geneticist who is working to create life from scratch. Man-made, synthetic viruses with the ability to multiply by the millions are "very close," Clyde Hutchison, of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Tuesday.
"That's something to be considered as being imminent," said Hutchison, who warned the technology holds much promise but could also "potentially be misused."
Already, researchers associated with a biotechnology company in Texas are believed to be synthesizing pieces of DNA big enough to generate viruses, said Hutchison. But the scientists involved are not releasing details of the work for "proprietary reasons," he said. He stopped short of saying such companies should declare what they are up to.
But some ethicists at the conference said one of the more worrisome aspect of the genetic revolution is that so much of the work is being done in the private sector, away from the gaze of regulatory bodies and ethics committees.
Hutchison's team is working to figure out the genetic recipe needed to a create a free-living organism from scratch. While that task is proving very tricky, he and other geneticists say it will soon be a relatively easy matter to tinker with existing micro-organisms to create new, more virulent varieties, and to recreate organisms that have lately become extinct. "Extinction isn't forever," said Hutchison. This would be true for endangered species, but not for already extinct ones, such as dinosaurs. Without one complete specimen, a full understanding of a genome is not available. "In principle, one day someone could make smallpox," Hutchison said, referring to the deadly microbe that has been declared eradicated by the World Health Organization. To recreate it, a clever geneticist would need only tweak a few genes in a related pox organism. The prospect of that and other sinister applications of biotechnology has some scientists calling for international treaties that would make it a "crime against humanity" to develop biological weapons using the new and astonishing genetic powers. While the advances have been profound on some levels, Hutchison said they are moving slowly when it comes to actually creating life in the test tube. Scientists may now be able to read the entire three billion letters of the human genome, he said, but they are hard-pressed to make a piece of DNA much bigger than a few thousand letters long. "It's very discouraging from a creation-of-life point of view," he said. (Each letter in a genome represents a nucleic acid.)
His team is trying to find a so-called "minimal genome" needed to create a free-living cell. Rather than starting from scratch, they are studying one of the simplest cells known -- a tiny bacterium called mycoplasma genitalium, which is commonly found on human skin and is associated with urinary tract infections. This microbe has about 500 genes, and Hutchison and his colleagues are knocking them out one by one to see which genes the cells can live without. This process of elimination indicates about 300 genes are essential to life, he says. (Human beings have about 30,000 genes.)
He said about 80 of the essential microbial genes have unknown functions. "We don't know what they do but they seem to be essential," he said. Hutchison figures it will be about 10 years before scientists make a free-living cell. To make it come to life, they will have to synthesize and stitch together the genes needed, and get them to orchestrate production of approximately 100 proteins.
"That's a long way off," he said, noting that the first new form of life to emerge from the laboratory will be viral. "Viruses seem close. That's what will happen first," says Hutchison, noting that scientists could create something the size of the AIDS virus. Viruses will be easier because their genomes are much smaller than free-living cells. They spread by hijacking cellular machinery inside the cells they infect to create viral proteins and coats. Hutchison remarked, "I think we would be playing God [by making living cells], and I think that would not be unethical."
On the weekend, Craig Venter, president of Celera Genomics, said biotechnology is already capable of bringing smallpox back from the dead. "It would be relatively easy to recreate smallpox from other animal poxes," he told a bioweapons symposium at the conference. Venter also defended biotechnology, saying it provides new tools that could act as a deterrent against development of new pathogens. Gene sequencing allows scientists to read the DNA of micro-organisms and should enable them to detect and track emerging pathogens "or synthetic organisms," he said.