Variously characterized in the media as “irresponsible” and a “stunt,” the de novo synthesis of poliovirus was seen as raising questions of biosafety, biosecurity, and ethics. When the paper describing the work was published in Science in 2002, members of the public as well as the scientific community criticized Wimmer for unnecessarily demonstrating how bioterrorists could use modern scientific techniques to create dangerous pathogens.
For its part, the editors of Science defended publishing the article by emphasizing the independent peer review process. However, due to an editorial decision and space limitations, an expanded discussion of the implications of the work was not published along with the paper. As Wimmer observed, an interpretation of the research for the lay public by science journalists would have acted as a bridge to the media and provided an opportunity to put “sensitive” research in perspective and provide commentary that was more balanced.
Other than informal consultations with colleagues, the Wimmer team did not seek or receive outside review of its study until it was time for publication. In contrast, when Dr. Craig Venter and colleagues described the rapid (14 days) synthesis of the 5386 nucleotide long genome of bacteriophage phiX174 a few months after the polio article was published, their paper was careful to note that “prior to attempting synthesis of a microbial chromosome we commissioned an independent bioethical review of our proposed scientific plan.”