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The bioweapon is in the post

You might think it would be difficult for a terrorist to obtain genes from the smallpox virus, or a similarly vicious pathogen. Well, it's not. Armed with a fake email address, a would-be bioterrorist could probably order the building blocks of a deadly biological weapon online, and receive them by post within weeks.

That's the sobering reality uncovered by a New Scientist investigation into the bioterror risks posed by the booming business of gene synthesis. Dozens of biotech firms now offer to synthesise complete genes from the chemical components of DNA (See "A dollar a base pair"). Yet some are carrying out next to no checks on what they are being asked to make, or by whom. It raises the frightening prospect of terrorists mail-ordering genes forkey bioweapon agents such as smallpox, and using them to engineer new and deadly pathogens.

Customers typically submit sequences by email or via a form available on a company's website. The companies then construct the specified genes and mail them back a few weeks later, usually spliced into a bacterium such as Escherichia coli. New Scientist approached 16 such firms, identified by a Google search, to ask whether they screened orders for DNA sequences that might pose a bioterror threat. Of the 12 companies that replied, just five said they screen every sequence received. Four said they screen some sequences, and three admitted not screening sequences at all (see Table).

The risks posed by gene] synthesis first hit the headlines in 2002, when a team from the State University of New York at Stony Brook made infectious polioviruses from synthetic DNA. And just last month, researcherswith the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, said that they had used similar means to recreate the virus that caused the 1918 flu (New Scientist, 8 October, p 16).

In theory, a terrorist group could try to emulate the latter feat, or create a virus such as Variola major, which causes
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Source:New Scientist Boston office


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