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Old 02-22-2006, 07:42 AM   #1
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Let's Build a Bioweapon

Biowar for Dummies

How hard is it to build your own weapon of mass destruction? We take a crash course in supervirus engineering to find out.

Anthrax. Smallpox. Ebola. For thriller writers and policy crusaders, biological warfare was a standard what-if scenario long before anyone mailed anthrax to government and media offices in 2001. Pentagon war games like Dark Winter, held just before 9/11, and this year’s Atlantic Storm suggested that terrorists could unleash germs with the killing power of a nuclear weapon.

Scientists, though, have always been skeptical. Only massive, state-sponsored programs—not terrorist cells or lone kooks—pose a plausible threat, they say. As the head of the Federation of American Scientists working group on bioweapons put it in a 2002 Los Angeles Times op-ed: “A significant bioterror attack today would require the support of a national program to succeed.”

Or not. A few months ago, Roger Brent, a geneticist who runs a California biotech firm, sent me an unpublished paper in which he wrote that genetically engineered bioweapons developed by small teams are a bigger threat than suitcase nukes.

Brent is one of a growing number of researchers who believe that a bioterrorist wouldn’t need a team of virologists and state funding. He says advances in DNA-hacking technology have reached the point where an evil lab assistant with the right resources could do the job.
Making DNA turns out to be easy if you have the right hardware. The critical piece of gear is a DNA synthesizer. Brent already has one, a yellowing plastic machine the size of an office printer, called an ABI 394. “So, what kind of authorization do I need to buy this equipment?” I ask.

“I suggest you start by typing ‘used DNA synthesizer’ into Google,” Brent says.

I hit eBay first, where ABI 394s go for about $5,000. Anything I can’t score at an auction is available for a small markup at sites like usedlabequip.com. Two days later I have a total: $29,700—taxes and shipping not included. Nucleosides (the A, C, T, G genetic building blocks) and other chemicals for the synthesizer cost more than the hardware—in the end, a single base pair of DNA runs about a buck to make. Enough raw material to build, say, the smallpox genome would take just over $200,000.

The real cost of villainy is in overhead. Even with the ready availability of equipment, you still need space, staff, and time. Brent guesses he would need a couple million dollars to whip up a batch of smallpox from scratch. No need for state sponsors or stolen top-secret germ samples. “An advanced grad student could do it,” Brent says. Especially with the help of some high schoolers who actually went to lab classes.

But how would I find the gene sequence? Simple. I went to the Web site of the National Center for Biotechnology Information (no password required) and downloaded the DNA sequence for a 770-base pair gene called the Enhanced Cyan Fluorescent Protein. That’s what Brent wanted me to program into my yeast. It took me about 15 minutes to find. Far easier to track down was the 200,000-base pair sequence for smallpox. Only two known samples of smallpox exist; the blueprints are free online here.
Well enough nuts out there there have to be some with some knowledege and some money


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Old 02-23-2006, 01:31 AM   #2
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I'll stick with U2's atomic bomb, thanks. At least it does no damage.
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