Federation of American Scientists Case Studies in Dual Use Biological Research Module 2.0: Poliovirus Case Study
Topic: Public Reaction Subtopic: Role of the Scientific Journals

Since 2002 the editors of several major journals have developed a statement regarding publication of potentially sensitive information. The editors recognized that there are valid concerns regarding the publication of information in scientific journals that could be put to inappropriate use. One of the recommendations in the journal editors' statement is that journals should consider an appropriate process to "accomplish effective review of papers that raise security concerns."

Fundamental is a view, shared by nearly all, that there is information that although we cannot now capture it with lists of definitions, presents enough risk of use by terrorists that it should not be published.

Poliovirus was an excellent model to prove that viruses can be synthesized from scratch; however, the techniques that Dr. Wimmer and his colleagues used to synthesize poliovirus were deliberately crude. New techniques for synthesizing DNA have continued to become more sophisticated over time and whole custom viral genomes can now be ordered over the internet from several companies. Many companies routinely screen their orders to ensure that they are not supplying genomes for select agents and that they are going to reputable institutes, but are not required to do so by law.

One notable technical improvement using programmable microchips accelerates the rate at which genes and genomes can be synthesized by a hundred-fold or more. Where it took Dr. Wimmer and his colleagues three years to synthesize the 7,500 nucleotides of poliovirus, a team led by Dr. George Church at Harvard Medical School and Dr. Xiaolian Gao of the University of Houston employing programmable DNA microchips took only months to synthesize a DNA molecule of 14,500 nucleotides in length. This same team is now at work synthesizing a 777,000 nucleotide genome of a Mycoplasma bacterium. By comparison, the smallpox virus contains only about 186,000 nucleotides.


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Topic History and Biology of Poliovirus De Novo Synthesis of Poliovirus Public Reaction Discussion References Home