Mail-Order Terrorism Is On Its Way
The first step of what may be the most horrible terrorist scenario yet, went something like this:
At the University of New York at Stony Brook, Dr. Eckard Wimmer and his colleague Jeronimo Cello recently assembled a team of graduate students, a couple of post-docs, and even one or two bright undergrads. These folks had in common one important ability: they were skilled in manipulating DNA.
What this means is that they understood how to split a long string of DNA into shorter segments, and then splice these segments together in differing orders, or even into other DNA segments. This activity sometimes is called gene splicing, but that name really doesn’t do justice to what these people can accomplish.
For example, you can give one of these technicians a length of DNA with an unknown structure, and this person can not only tell you what the structure is, but can split it apart and reassemble it into all of its various possible combinations. And then (this is the really interesting part), even a skilled undergrad can test the results in order to determine what, if any, characteristics the new DNA material has.
One has visions of a mad scientist creating templates for modern-day Frankenstein monsters in one of these labs, but such is not the case. These DNA sequences typically can do nothing at all, unless they are part of an overall DNA structure that defines the characteristics for a creature found naturally in the world – anything from a simple virus or microbe to a full-blown human being.
What is ultimately both cool and terrifying is the word “typically” in the above sentence. We now have mapped the complete human genome. This means that we know precisely the entire sequence of the human DNA structure. We don’t necessarily understand exactly what each segment does, but we do know the sequence of nucleotides in the DNA.
We also have mapped the sequences of many other DNA structures, including those of Polio and many other diseases that attack the human body. Furthermore, we are capable, in principle, of developing DNA sequences that are able to substitute into the human DNA structure by replacing something that nature put there for some purpose – known or unknown.
Any skilled researcher in this field can create these random sequences and then test to see what they do to a living structure. The action can take place outside the actual DNA structure in the guise of a “microbe” or “virus,” or it can happen directly within the DNA itself, by splicing the unknown segment directly into the active DNA.
Wimmer’s team mapped out the exact DNA structure of a simple Polio virus by using information available from the Internet, and then broke it into several small segments – here is the clincher – that are commercially available from laboratory supply houses. Then they placed orders to several supply houses for these tailor-made DNA segments, paid for them by credit card, and received them through the mail like any other letter or simple harmless lab material.
The junior people on the team assembled the segments using well-understood laboratory techniques, creating a completely artificial Polio virus. To prove a point, the team injected several mice with the virus. The mice came down with Polio, became paralyzed, and were subsequently killed.
The Bio-medical world is in a uproar. Many senior scientists are livid with outrage at this “unethical” procedure. Wimmer and his team, however, make no apologies. Their very clear point is that if it can be done, then it will be done. And in this case, the results are potentially horrific.
Wimmer is careful to point out that we are a long way from creating an artificial Ebola virus in the lab, and the skill level to do this ranges at the top. Nevertheless, skills can be learned, even very precise high-level skills. Al Qaeda has proven its mettle, in terms of its ability to accomplish its aims, even in the face of apparently overwhelming odds.
The World Health Organization is on the verge of declaring Polio eliminated from the world stage. If we cease vaccinations, and then follow up by eliminating stores of vaccines, we are simply asking for trouble. Polio is virulent and deadly. Wimmer proved a small group can produce it with very little effort. He warns that we should continue vaccinating against Polio and other potentially deadly diseases.
Unfortunately, there is a further potential problem inherent in Wimmer’s work. His team simply obtained information from the Internet, purchased the indicated pieces, and stitched them together into a live virus. Everyone seems to be avoiding the horrific dark side of his work.
Any competent student can examine the human genome and order segments from the supply houses as Wimmer’s team did. Then comes the “fun” part. By creating random segments from the purchased pieces, a student (read terrorist) can begin the process of inserting these random segments into the Human DNA sequence just to discover what happens. A fair amount of computer sophistication will enable a group of these people to do this insertion by computer to a virtual DNA sequence, applying rules already discovered by others. They can process literally thousands of insertions per second, looking for that one that has highly negative consequences.
Sooner or later, these will turn up, and then all they need do is order the necessary segments, and distribute the new virus. This will be a virus for which there is no cure – at least not one known to anyone else.
The only way to prevent this from happening, or at least to gain some measure of protection from this kind of activity is to ensure that all biomedical supply houses report all purchases, no matter what kind. The homeland defense team must then coordinate purchase information to see if there is a pattern, in order to prevent individual sequences from being purchased by separate groups who then put them together.
The priority for this is not at the top of the list, but we need to deploy the program soon in order that it doesn’t become top priority, out of dire necessity, a year or so from now.
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor