Assembling Life

I was reading an article in the Federation of American Scientists (www.fas.org) website, about the possible dual uses of science, when a discovery is made or a technology is implemented, it can be used for good or evil.

An specially troubling case is Bioterrorism, and how can it be relatively easy to produce a biological agent that can cause massive harm in the population.

One of the case sudies in this document was ¨De Novo Synthesis of Poliovirus¨; in 2001, Dr. Wimmer, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook, announced that his lab had assembled a synthetic poliovirus in a test tube without a DNA or RNA template, or the help of living cells.

Starting from the premise that a virus is more a chemical structure than a living entity, Dr. Wimmer and his team assembled the genetic code of the Poliovirus (Dr. Wimmer in 1991 published the chemical formula of the poliovirus) out of custom made oligonucleotides bought from a commercial supplier. It took Dr. Wimmer and his team three years to assemble the oligonucleotides together into more complex chains until he achieved the 7741 base pair. Later he inscribed this base into RNA, and then incubated it into cells. When this cells were injected into mice, they developed the disease.

One technical improvement in particular accelerates the rate by which genes and genomes can be synthesized by a hundred-fold or more using programmable microchips. Whereas, it took Dr. Wimmer and his colleagues some 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.

Technology has arrived where we can produce the building blocks of life from raw molecules in a fast automated way.

Suddenly the scene in the movie “The 5th Element” where they are capable of “reassembling” Lilo out of a cell recovered from a glove, doesn’t seem science-fiction.

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