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New Scientist investigation reveals how easily terrorists can obtain biological weapons ‘building blocks’

Get free weekly news by e-mailYou might think it would be difficult for a terrorist to obtain genes from the smallpox virus, or a similarly vicious pathogen. Well, it's not. Armed with a fake email address, a would-be bioterrorist could probably order the building blocks of a deadly biological weapon online, and receive them by post within weeks.

That's the sobering reality uncovered by a New Scientist investigation into the bioterror risks posed by the booming business of gene synthesis. Dozens of biotech firms now offer to synthesise complete genes from the chemical components of DNA. Yet some are carrying out next to no checks on what they are being asked to make, or by whom. It raises the frightening prospect of terrorists mail-ordering genes for key bioweapon agents such as smallpox, and using them to engineer new and deadly pathogens.

Customers typically submit sequences by email or via a form available on a company's website. The companies then construct the specified genes and mail them back a few weeks later, usually spliced into a bacterium such as Escherichia coli. New Scientist approached 16 such firms, identified by a Google search, to ask whether they screened orders for DNA sequences that might pose a bioterror threat. Of the 12 companies that replied, just five said they screen every sequence received. Four said they screen some sequences, and three admitted not screening sequences at all.

The risks posed by gene synthesis first hit the headlines in 2002, when a team from the State University of New York at Stony Brook made infectious polioviruses from synthetic DNA. And just last month, researchers with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, said that they had used similar means to recreate the virus that caused the 1918 flu (New Scientist, 8 October, p 16).

In theory, a terrorist group could try to emulate the latter feat, or create a virus such as Variola major, which causes smallpox. However, the Variola genome comprises some 190,000 base pairs of DNA, and while some companies will make sequences 20,000 or more base pairs long, an attempt to order all the genes necessary to launch a smallpox attack would probably arouse suspicion. "That would stand out from a technological point of view," suggests Drew Endy, a bioengineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A more realistic risk is that terrorists could order genes that confer virulence to dangerous pathogens such as the Ebola virus, and engineer them into another virus or bacterium. They could also order genes for a hazardous bacterial toxin – although many of these are also available by isolating the microorganisms from the environment.

Virulence genes are typically no more than a few thousand base-pairs long. Their sequences are publicly available, so screening gene-synthesis orders for potential bioweapons shouldn't pose a huge challenge.

Even if they don't routinely perform sequence checks, some companies say that they do investigate their customers. But the scope of these checks varies widely and email addresses are notoriously easy to fake. Even orders from legitimate institutions may not be what they seem.

The complete investigative article will appear in New Scientist magazine issue: 12 November 2005

Date: 10th Nov 2005 • Region: World Type: Article •Topic: Terrorism
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