Sunday, June 18, 2006

Bioterror Watch - Smallpox Synthesis

This is kind of scary. Via the Guardian:

In a front-page article in The Guardian on 14 June, the newspaper's science correspondent describes how he arranged for a tiny fragment of the smallpox genome to be synthesized by a mail-order biological-supplies company and delivered to his home address. The company involved, VH Bio, based in Gateshead, UK, did not screen the sequence using software that checks orders against the genomes of dangerous microorganisms.

The smallpox virus has been synthesized before, and while it was by university molecular biology professors, they claimed that doing so was pretty trivial. It will only get more so as time goes on: the technology necessary for genetic engineering continues to fall in price, and odds are there will be plenty of people who just teach themselves how do it. For that matter, it's not impossible that, say, a molecular biology grad student might get infected by extinctionism memesets, and decide to synthesize smallpox or some other virus in his free time.

There's a lot of debate about whether such information should be suppressed. Apparently there's an ammendment banning it's synthesis, and when the virus was first synthesized (a feat the researchers performed as a warning) a lot of people said they'd gone too far by actually publishing the genome. The argument is that it's sort of like nuclear secrets: the recipes and techniques should be held secret, to keep bad guys from making them. The other side of the debate says suppressing information is never the way to go.

Of course widely distributed biotech expertise could be a blessing as well. Hundreds of thousands of basement biolabs run by hobbyists might be able to find vaccines, antiviral agents etc within days or even hours, thus providing the world with a kind of technological immune system. I figure this is the world's best bet for avoiding some kind of biological apocalypse, which is why I actually support letting that information roam free. The more people are working on defenses, the better, and unlike with nukes, they need all the information they can get to build effective defenses.


Anonymous Dominic Ebacher said...

I am one of those grad students you postulate.

Everyone's looking for the best future, few are making it happen.

How's Japan?

Good luck, your life seems interesting!

Peace and Love!

Dominic Ebacher

7:52 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Japan's good, thanks for asking!

Which kind of grad student, exactly? Not the type working on some awful virus to eradicate humanity, I hope ;)

9:44 PM  
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