Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Next Pandemic Could Be Downloaded From The Internet

Genetic recipe for disaster 

Too much information could be a recipe for disaster.

 Last October, scientists in California sequenced the DNA for the “type H” botulinum toxin. One gram of this toxin would be sufficient to kill half a billion people, making it the deadliest substance yet discovered – with no antidote. The DNA sequence was not placed on public databases, marking the first time genetic code has been withheld from the public over security concerns.

As biological discoveries accelerate, we may need to censor even more genetic data. The line between digital data and our physical world is not as clear cut as it once was, with the advent of 3D printing technologies and DNA synthesisers. Many people are familiar with the first printed gun, cited heavily by the media as a dangerous development. But many would probably be surprised to learn that analogous technology is used to print pathogens. For example, the polio virus was successfully recreated in 2002, and the 1918 flu virus was resurrected by a DNA synthesiser in 2005.

Pandora’s box 2.0

The machines that make this resurrection possible serve many legitimate research purposes. Instead of painstakingly manipulating DNA in a local lab, scientists can get made-to-order sequences from a variety of DNA synthesis companies from around the world. Alternatively, if they have some extra cash and desk space, they could get one of the machines right here on Ebay. Access to such a machine gives scientists a critical edge in many areas of genomics research.

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