From New Scientist 30 January 1999

A terrifying power
by Philip Cohen

THE world's first simple artificial life form could be constructed in the next few years, the AAAS heard. But the team leading the way have stopped work for the moment, fearing that their discovery might lead to the creation of the ultimate bioweapon in the shape of a synthetic "superbug".

The project is the brainchild of Craig Venter of Celera Genomics and his colleagues at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), both in Rockville, Maryland. In parallel to the human genome project, Venter and other researchers have been sequencing the genomes of various bacteria that cause human disease.

In 1995, TIGR revealed the sequence of the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae, which can cause respiratory disease. This was the first complete DNA sequence for any cellular organism. Now about 20 genomes are known and 30 more are expected by 2000. Eventually all this information will be available from online databases.

Venter's team has compared the genomes of simple microorganisms, disrupting their genes in turn to find out which are essential for survival. They have pinpointed a minimum of 300 genes which seem to be necessary for life. In theory, they could now build an artificial chromosome carrying these genes and wrap it up in a membrane with a few proteins and other biochemicals to create a simple synthetic organism.

This organism could reveal much about the evolution of early life on Earth. But it could also be a gift to bioterrorists. A streamlined cell of this type would be an attractive template for building a devastating bioweapon. "All at once we wondered whether we were getting into dangerous territory here," says Venter.

The genome projects for various pathogens now nearing completion will explain why dangerous microorganisms are so virulent and how some evolved resistance to drugs. Experts fear that terrorists could splice the genes involved into Venter's proposed synthetic organism to create a biological superweapon. "The consequences could be so horrible that not to prepare is unconscionable," says Frank Young, a retired doctor formerly with the US Food and Drug Administration.

Both Young and Venter sat on a panel that advised President Bill Clinton on the growing bioterrorist threat. Last week, Clinton announced a $1.4 billion programme to combat chemical and bioterrorism. Venter says that the new possibilities opened up by genome research add to the urgency. "This is partly what spawned our report," he says.

Clinton's plan concentrates on measures such as stockpiling of vaccines and antibiotics. The potential benefits from genome research are so great that restricting access to DNA sequences is not an option, his advisers say. But the very same rapid DNA analysis techniques that made the flood of genome data possible could also be applied to detecting bioterrorism. Clinton's programme includes a plan to build labs to identify a pathogen within an hour, so that drugs could be deployed rapidly. The labs will also help detect pathogens that cause natural disease outbreaks.

Given the potential for abuse, Venter has for now halted his minimal organism project, until its implications can be debated in full.