The topic has been raised time and again over the years, especially with the advent of medical biotechnology and the capability to reconstruct genomes wholecloth. Even if science has the capability to make something, should it?

Smallpox In The Room

In this case and in several prior instances, the discussion has been about the reconstruction of dead viruses, bacteria, and other dangerous genetic feats in order to research their properties and potentially develop new ways to combat them.

Smallpox is the biggest elephant in the room question regarding this and it has long been a debate on whether the still-existing caches of stored smallpox virus should be destroyed to prevent even the possibility of escape or retained in order to continue researching interventionary tactics in case it or something similar arises again. There are clear arguments and benefits for either side and, due to that, no real conclusion has been made on what to do with the caches.

But that might all be moot at this point. It has been a slow building conclusion centered around increasingly simple and somewhat cheap ways of putting together genomes. Because, if you can create a genome from thousands of small individual fragments of the original, then you can make almost anything.

Synthesizing “Life”

This all really and officially started with poxviruses back in 2002 when virologists at Stony Brook University in New York succeeded in their long endeavor to synthesize poliovirus from scratch. Out of the 7,741 basepairs in its sequence, the scientists mail-ordered small fragments of it from several gene synthesis companies, before spending two years stitching together all the fragments into the right order. Enzymes were then used to turn it from DNA to RNA and then to its active protein form to use in animal testing.

The technique used, of obtaining a huge amount of small sequences to put together into a whole one, was novel and would serve as a blueprint for later projects. But it also showed that, so long as the full sequence is known, it would be possible to order all the fragments needed with no one the wiser. Arguably anyone could do it with the right technology, tools, and experience.

A Pox For Horses

Now, back to the recent subject of controversy. Scientists at the University of Alberta in Canada have used those same prior techniques to successfully synthesize a full version of horsepox. This member of the poxvirus family is significantly more complex than its cousin that was created 15 years prior. Instead of nearly 8,000 basepairs, it contains around 212,000 basepairs of genetic material.

Horsepox is, in modern terms, an antique virus. It disappeared decades ago and the only remnants are copies of its sequence obtained from the last surviving strains found isolated in Mongolia in the 1970’s. It doesn’t seem to have ever been a major virus for horses, unlike smallpox has been for humanity, and likely died out just from proper horse management and care over the past few centuries. There are suspicions and myths that horsepox, instead of cowpox, was involved in the first vaccinations conducted by Edward Jenner in 1796, but that will likely never be able to be verified.

The Box Is Broken

Thus, this accomplishment of synthesizing such a large genome from scratch is more a story of that very technique rather than an issue with the virus that is made. Horsepox being a relative of smallpox does not make itself a concern, but more the idea of how simple it now is to make poxviruses from said fragments. It once again raises the specter of someone in the near future actually taking the step toward resurrecting smallpox. Someone who the world would likely not be able to trust to not misuse it for their own purposes.

Which puts us into a similar quandary as with the original discussion on keeping the caches of smallpox or not. The so-called “demon in the freezer” may be loose no matter what choice is made, simply due to advanced genetic technology. This synthesis and the discussion over whether the paper on its creation should be allowed to go to journal publication, on whether the experiment should have even been ethically allowed in the first place, and many other ethics and safety questions are swirling around right now.

If you want to read more about those specific views, please look into the articles linked below. I just wanted to give an overview and some background on what’s going on right now and why many bioethicists, virologists, and others are in a bit of a panic. Pandora’s box may be permanently open at this point, it may already have been and these Canadian researchers were more or less just informing us of it with their study, but regardless.

Some Light To Note

There are some positives to keep in mind. The first is that smallpox, while being airborne and having some lethality, doesn’t spread that well. Researchers trained in responding to potential biohazard outbreaks and that have studied the composition of smallpox have noted that if an outbreak did occur, whether purposefully caused or not, it would likely not be too difficult to contain its spread. Especially since stockpiles of the old vaccine still exist.

So, while we are confronted with a world where our scientific capability continues to advance and it is possible that some of our fears may become our reality sooner rather than later, we are not completely out of options. What we need is to be actively prepared for that eventuality, the use of such a virus or bacteria for harmful ends, no matter what that entails. Which is why it’s good that we’re having all these discussions now so that an action plan can be put together on what direction the scientific world as a whole will take.

Then we’ll just have to wait and see how that decision works out for everyone else. But we have the ability to take the future into our own hands and ensure public safety.

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Photo CCs: Smallpox CAM from Wikimedia Commons

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