Scientists create virus in 2 weeks

Rockville research firm uses faster technique, easily bought materials

November 14, 2003|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

A Rockville research institute has developed a technique that could speed the creation of custom, artificial life forms designed to do a variety of jobs that range from mopping up pollutants to mass-producing drugs.

As a demonstration, researchers at the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives announced yesterday that they had created a simple virus in just 14 days by stitching together strands of synthetic DNA purchased through the mail.

"You can envision this like building something out of Legos," said IBEA President J. Craig Venter, who led the race to decode human DNA before joining the effort to build organisms from scratch.

The announcement marks only the second time that scientists have created a man-made microbe.

Artificial polio virus

Last year, researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook constructed a living polio virus using commercially available DNA strands, an accomplishment that triggered widespread criticism and alarm over its potential for misuse.

Some scientists worry that terrorists armed with new microbe-making techniques might be able to create deadly bioweapons, especially because genetic blueprints for pathogens from Ebola to smallpox are freely available on the Internet.

Efforts to create man-made viruses and bacteria also might raise moral and ethical dilemmas.

"We got a lot of phone calls from religious groups saying, "Don't play God,'" recalls Aniko V. Paul, a SUNY Stony Brook geneticist involved in the polio virus work.

At a news conference yesterday in Washington, Venter said the research had been reviewed and approved by both an independent 12-member ethics panel and officials at the Department of Energy, which is funding the project.

He described the new genetic techniques and the simple virus that his team developed as an "enabling step" toward the team's ultimate goal: creating larger and more complex microorganisms.

Biological solutions

During the past two years, DOE has given Venter's organization a total of $12 million to research and develop biological solutions - including designer bugs - for the nation's most pressing energy and environmental problems.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said yesterday that he envisions a time when custom-designed microbes might be standard tools to help dispose of waste or treat discharges at coal-fired factories and water-treatment plants.

But achieving that dream will require new genetic techniques and technologies, scientists say.

To develop them, Venter has recruited a team of scientists including Hamilton O. Smith, a Nobel laureate and former Johns Hopkins University researcher.

The first virus Venter and Smith chose to create is a bacteriophage, a type of virus that infects only bacteria.

Harmless and simple

Called Phi X174, the virus has been a staple in scientific laboratories since the 1950s and is harmless to humans.

Venter said his team chose Phi X174 because it's puny by virus standards - composed of just 5,386 genetic building blocks.

Human DNA, in contrast, comprises more than 3 billion.

Phi X174 also has historical significance: In 1978, its DNA was the first to be completely deciphered.

Using this published recipe and commercially available DNA, Venter and his team used a technique called polymerase cycle assembly to stitch together the virus.

The technique, says Venter, is much faster and more accurate than construction techniques other groups have tried.

The SUNY team, he said, required more than a year to create its polio virus.

Venter and his team had a living bacteriophage in less than two weeks.

"I'm very impressed," said Eckard Wimmer, the SUNY molecular geneticist who led the polio virus work.

"He provided a technology to rapidly generate small viruses."

Details of the research will appear in a future issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Some scientists remain skeptical about the practical application of efforts to create organisms from scratch.

`Largely showmanship'

"I think that's largely showmanship," said biologist Eugene V. Koonin at the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda.

He and other critics note that scientists, using microbes found in nature, have already been able to engineer bugs capable of mopping up oil spills and performing other cleanup jobs.

Koonin said a more important outcome of the genetic techniques that Venter and others are developing will be learning how organisms work.

"That's a project of tremendous scientific value," he said.

With the successful completion of Phi X174, Venter said, he and his team will attempt to build larger organisms.

Single-cell bacteria and many viruses such as smallpox are 100 to 1,000 times larger than the small bacteriophage.

Constructing such large organisms might take some time.

It will also be far more difficult to design and build truly novel life forms from scratch.

So far scientists have succeeding only in copying microbes whose genetic blueprints are already known.

"This is basic science at the most basic level," said Venter, "with lots of unknowns."

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