The Biotech Chickens Come Home to Roost

Synthetic Genetic Shakespeares

Scientists claim they have revived an extinct virus by patching together fragments of synthetic DNA (1).  The DNA fragments used to accomplish this feat were reportedly obtained through a commercial supplier by mail order.  The revitalized virus is horsepox which may have vanished (2, 3) and is not considered to pose much danger to humans.  However, horsepox is in the same family as smallpox and this work proved that reviving an extinct scourge using synthetic DNA has now transitioned from worrisome possibility to more worrisome possibility. 

This situation has been anticipated for 15 years when the chemical synthesis of a functional poliovirus genome analogue was announced (4).  However, I am not dismissive of the accomplishment being reported; pox viruses are far larger than polioviruses and their genomes are not directly infectious complicating the task of getting them to replicate.  Despite the novelty, the horsepox resurrection data has not yet been published…

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