Has DNA technology advanced so far that a rogue scientist, or even a biologically competent terrorist, could assemble a deadly pathogen from genetic sequences bought by mail order? The complete genetic codes for some of nature’s most lethal viruses, such as polio and smallpox, are publicly available. The technology for synthesising genes using this information has developed so fast in the past few years that it’s not particularly hard to order fragments of the gene from commercial companies; and it’s not very expensive either. Assembling the fragments into a complete live virus is hard, but researchers in Canada have succeeded with a pox virus, horsepox, and have published their results and methods. Smallpox is one of the most deadly pathogens ever to strike humans. It was eliminated from the world in 1977, but now the door is open for it to be recreated in the lab, and even made resistant to the vaccines that we have for it. Little stands in the way of this other than the good sense of scientists, and the customer screening processes of DNA synthesis companies that sell genetic sequences. Is it time for the scientific community to rethink its approach to information, so that at least some of it remains unavailable to those with bad or foolish intentions?
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