- (Agence France-Presse) - Genetic engineers already have
it within their grasp to devise a lethal bio-weapon for terrorists and
rogue states, the British science publication Nature warns this week.
- Small changes in the DNA of well-known bacteria and viruses
could turn these agents into mass killers, the journal says.
- The publication echoes warnings by a pair of Australian
scientists, Dr Ron Jackson and Dr Ian Ramshaw, who accidentally created
an astonishingly virulent strain of mousepox, a cousin of smallpox, among
- They realised that if similar genetic manipulation was
carried out on smallpox, an unstoppable killer could be unleashed. They
decided to publish their findings in January to draw attention to the potential
misuse of biotechnology.
- Nature warns: "Making subtle genetic alterations
to existing pathogens to increase their virulence or durability in the
environment, or to make them harder to detect or to treat with drugs, is
within the limits of today's technology.
- "With the decoding of a pathogen's entire genome
now commonplace, and transgenic techniques advancing all the time, some
researchers believe that the sinister potential of biology can no longer
- Biowarfare - use of germs or viruses such as anthrax
or smallpox - has long been considered by military strategists. However,
the risk has increased thanks to advances in knowledge about how genes
work, new techniques for moving pieces of DNA around, and the relative
ease with which a rogue organisation could build or hire a lab to build
such a weapon.
- Scientists interviewed by Nature ruled out, for the time
being, the ability to build new, artificial agents from a set of component
- A far simpler way would be to tweak the performance of
an existing bacteria to make it more resistant to antibiotics, they said.
- The genetic sequences of bacteria such as tuberculosis,
cholera, leprosy and the plague are already in the public domain - as is
that of a food poisoning bug, Staphylococcus aureus, that is already becoming
resistant to antibiotics.
- By identifying the genes from Staphylococcus aureus that
make the bug resistant, and inserting them into the other bacteria, a scientist
could make a killer for which there would be scant defence.
- Dr Willem Stemmer, chief scientist with Maxygen, a California
pharmaceutical research firm, used one of these techniques to explore how
resistance genes work, Nature reports.
- He created a strain of the common intestinal bug Escherichia
coli that was 32,000 times more resistant to the antibiotic cefotaxime
than conventional strains. He destroyed the superbug in response to the
American Society for Microbiology's concerns about potential misuse.
- "It's time for biologists to begin asking what means
we have to keep the technology from being used in subverted ways,"
said Harvard University molecular biologist Professor Matthew Meselson,
who has often spoken of the dangers of biowarfare.