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July 11, 2002
8:23 PM   Subscribe

a) A virus is a form of life.
b) Scientists 'assemble' a virus in vitro
c) Man has power to create life.

Discuss.
posted by dash_slot- (40 comments total)

 
You left out the best part... "To construct the virus, the researchers say they followed a recipe they downloaded from the internet and used gene sequences from a mail-order supplier. "
posted by atom128 at 8:27 PM on July 11, 2002


Wow.
Scientists followed a recipe they downloaded from the internet and used gene sequences from a mail-order supplier.


I don't know whether to sit down and cross my fingers, or shout "STOP! Where are we going with this!??!"

Anyone have anything further on this?
posted by dash_slot- at 8:28 PM on July 11, 2002


[You're just faster on the draw, Atom128! :)]
posted by dash_slot- at 8:29 PM on July 11, 2002


soo... who wrote the recipe? There just happened to be vaible instructions for something that had never been done online?
posted by delmoi at 8:32 PM on July 11, 2002


So what is this scientist the little brother from Better Off Dead who sent away and built a working laser gun or something? I feel like such a wuss. All I've bought through the mail lately is a digital camera.
posted by willnot at 8:33 PM on July 11, 2002


Viruses are not alive. They don't fall under traditional taxonomic description because they are acellular, and are thus inert without the presence of other animal or plant cells.

Beyond that, however, this is worrying.
posted by Danelope at 8:38 PM on July 11, 2002


Neat. I remember reading ages ago that scientists hadn't decided whether viruses were alive, because they didn't quite meet the standard criteria and had been wondering about it recently. Wouldd have thought they'd figure it out by now.

As to the topic at hand, it's kind of creepy.
Somewhat related, The Atlantic Monthly this month has an article on Designer Bugs(just a summary, but it can be purchased) about some researchers who came up with a way to make diseases more virulent. The research was actually for pest control, but they figured it could be used on say...plague, botulism, etc.
posted by Su at 8:38 PM on July 11, 2002


A virus is not a form of life.

To construct the virus, the researchers say they followed a recipe they downloaded from the internet and used gene sequences form a mail-order supplier.

That naughty internet! There oughta be a law.

Maybe we could fight back like the RIAA, and flood the information space with lots of copies of fake viral genomes. sort of like releasing millions of sterile screwworm flies.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 8:41 PM on July 11, 2002


What concerns me is that this seems to have come in right under the radar screen - who knows what folks in the private sector are up to?

Who regulates this, and what are the safeguards?

Why are we doing it?

What will the commercial applications be?

Do any of you Brits remember the TV show The Survivors, from the 70's?

...The basic idea is that a deadly virus wipes out the vast majority of the world's population. The story follows the lives of three survivors, how they come to terms with their situation and how they begin to rebuild society...

Sound familiar?
posted by dash_slot- at 8:46 PM on July 11, 2002


That naughty internet! There oughta be a law.
Please please, it's called the interweb.
posted by holloway at 8:58 PM on July 11, 2002


Sound familiar?

Uhh...no? See, that was "a TV show". And this is "reality". And a deadly virus has not wiped out the vast majority of the world's population.

Scientists have been successfully synthesizing complex proteins using the same equipment for years. This is just the next logical step in technological progression.
posted by Danelope at 8:59 PM on July 11, 2002


I'm more worried about evil scientists changing AIDs to become airborne. Luckily, even though that possibly is quite easy to do, it would still require massive amounts of labor, money and modern equipment.

The good part of this is that if they create a virus weak enough, or at least figure out how to, this could usher in a whole new age of innoculations. Just Xerox the virus till it fades too much to be a problem and pop it in a human. No more having to search for someone who has natural immunity to a virus.

Not to mention making a virus that instead of damaging us, would destroy only cancer cells or a host of other things.
posted by geoff. at 9:03 PM on July 11, 2002


Isn't fire also alive. It moves, procreates, requires oxygen to survive, and has enough of a mind to actively hate me.

Stupid Boi Scouts!!!
posted by Dagobert at 9:16 PM on July 11, 2002


They did it to prove that it could be done by anyone - constituting a significant terroist threat (and I quote): Dr. Eckard Wimmer, professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at Stony Brook and leader of the project, said they made the virus to send a warning that terrorists might be able to make biological weapons without obtaining a natural virus. per NY times
posted by zia at 9:16 PM on July 11, 2002


Responding to criticisms that such research could lead to bioterrorists engineering new lethal viruses, the scientists behind the experiment said that only a few people had the knowledge to make it happen.

Yeah, uh-huh, sure.
posted by internal at 9:19 PM on July 11, 2002


Actually, Atom 28, YOU left out the best part, the preceding line...

"Now people have to take it seriously. Progress in biomedical research has its benefits and it has its down side. There is a danger inherent to progress in sciences. This is a new reality, a new consideration."

'Very easy to do'

According to researcher Jeronimo Cello, the polio virus assembled in the laboratory is one of the simplest known viruses. "It was very easy to do," he said.

posted by Espoo2 at 9:25 PM on July 11, 2002


"God creates dinosaurs
God destroys dinosaurs
God creates man
Man destroys God
Man creates dinosaurs
Dinosaurs eat man
Woman inherits the Earth."

posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:27 PM on July 11, 2002


Ack...
Gotta watch my cut and paste....

Here's what I meant....


"Responding to criticisms that such research could lead to bioterrorists engineering new lethal viruses, the scientists behind the experiment said that only a few people had the knowledge to make it happen.

'New reality'

To construct the virus, the researchers say they followed a recipe they downloaded from the internet and used gene sequences from a mail-order supplier. "

posted by Espoo2 at 9:28 PM on July 11, 2002


I looked and I couldn't find the recipe in the world's greatest recipe collection.
posted by srboisvert at 9:36 PM on July 11, 2002


[OT] Thanks for the link, srboisvert, I hadn't stumbled across that site yet. I especially enjoyed their recipe for salted water and the user comments.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 10:04 PM on July 11, 2002


I think the majority view is that viruses are not living things (and I happen to agree). IMO, the key point is that in order to match any of the typical criteria used to discriminate between living and non-living things, viruses must be inside a host cell. While this is also true of such obligate intracellular parasites as Chlamydia, those organisms are discrete structural units in and of themselves: they are self-bounded. Viruses rely on the host cell not only for function but also for form: they break down within the host cell and are not capable of both maintaining their own discrete structure and replicating.
posted by sennoma at 10:34 PM on July 11, 2002


A . . . recipe. From the internet.

For a second there, I thought maybe it was April 1st - for those of us more gullible--hello? I was with that article all the way until the bit about the internet.

This is a joke, isn't it.
posted by precocious at 10:41 PM on July 11, 2002


precocious, I think I understand. I, too, am far too stoned to deal with these implications, and will book my cruise down Da River Da Nial forthwith.

Before I do, though, can someone whip me up a batch of Dell Boy? I need arm candy.
posted by WolfDaddy at 10:50 PM on July 11, 2002


(off-topic:)
Espoo? as in Espen "Shampoo" Knutsen?
posted by edlundart at 10:51 PM on July 11, 2002


"...can someone whip me up a batch of Dell Boy? I need arm candy."

What, my supple yet sinewy glutes aren't enough for you any more?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:52 PM on July 11, 2002


Viruses rely on the host cell not only for function but also for form: they break down within the host cell and are not capable of both maintaining their own discrete structure and replicating.

So, to your way of thinking, any symbiote that has co-evolved to the point that it is not self-sustaining outside its host is non-living?
posted by rushmc at 11:24 PM on July 11, 2002


A . . . recipe. From the internet.

I fail to see the big deal here unless I want to engage in hyperbole or faked surprise. Many academics publish their papers openly on the net and there's a webpage for everything. Finding something potentially dangerous on the web sounds fairly normal to me. Before the internet it was the Anarchist's Cookbook. The genie is simply out the bottle. The AC censorship attempts failed for many reasons, one of which was that you can get better bomb building information from a High School level chemistry book or from word of mouth.

Getting the equipment and resources is a whole different story not to mention perfecting the technical aspects of sequencing genes. There are many simple chemicals that cannot be bought in bulk without a couple forms of ID. I can't buy a resistor from Radio Shack without giving them my papers. I'm not saying these methods will stop anyone bent on hurting others, but there are checks in place and lets face it - you can rarely keep a determined person from trying something, but you can stop them in the act.
posted by skallas at 11:38 PM on July 11, 2002


Sennoma:Viruses rely on the host cell not only for function but also for form: they break down within the host cell and are not capable of both maintaining their own discrete structure and replicating...that's useful. Is that the explanation for why A*DS doesn't live o/s the body (on seats, glass rims, skin, etc.)?

precocious: no, none of the original post was a joke - someone in the research team found out 'the recipe' on the net. For real.

Wolfdaddy:I need arm candy. Lost me coffee to that!!

rushmc: Is there an exception?
posted by dash_slot- at 11:41 PM on July 11, 2002


rushmc: So, to your way of thinking, any symbiote that has co-evolved to the point that it is not self-sustaining outside its host is non-living?

If said symbiote is acellular, has no internal cellular membranes, and no means of reproduction without relying on the cells of living creatures, then yes, it is non-living.
posted by Danelope at 11:56 PM on July 11, 2002


What, my supple yet sinewy glutes aren't enough for you any more?

I have two arms, you know.

And, hell, if I wait twenty years, I could conceivably--perhaps even inevitably--have more than that. All the better to affectionately pat your so wonderfully defined glutes, crash.
posted by WolfDaddy at 12:02 AM on July 12, 2002


Danelope, this is intriguing to me. The dead virus replicates, disrupts and overwhelms other living cells; some (all?) forms manipulate hosts to spread and expel; they can and do cause serious damage to other living bodies.

I know I sounded alarmist up there ^ but thank god it's dead!!
posted by dash_slot- at 12:33 AM on July 12, 2002


New Scientist: balanced & informative News on the topic

apologies for yet another comment - it's developing in front of my eyes...
posted by dash_slot- at 12:53 AM on July 12, 2002


Is that the explanation for why A*DS doesn't live o/s the body (on seats, glass rims, skin, etc)

Not really. HIV-1 can survive outside the host environment (on seats, etc), but not for very long. It is rather a labile virus, the outer surface of which is not particularly stable and is susceptible to damage by oxidation and drying (e.g. bleach, ethanol, air exposure). The primary reason for rapid loss of infectivity outside the host environment (blood, seminal fluid) is damage to the outer surface which renders the virion incapable of entering a host cell. Even in the blood of an infected person, individual virions do not "live" very long.

So, to your way of thinking, any symbiote that has co-evolved to the point that it is not self-sustaining outside its host is non-living?

No, because symbionts are self-bounded and maintain their own structure throughout their replicative cycles. A virus particle breaks down inside the cell, and is no longer a discrete "thing" but a scattered collection of molecules.
posted by sennoma at 1:21 AM on July 12, 2002


i, for one, welcome our new 'germ'-anic overlords :) all hail the vector!
posted by kliuless at 7:15 AM on July 12, 2002


Paul and her colleagues used chemical techniques to produce large segments of DNA corresponding to portions of the polio virus. They made one segment themselves, then ordered the rest from a company that routinely machine-generates DNA

Sounds like the "recipe on the internet" is just the DNA sequence itself, not some creepy Loompanics factsheet. And the fact that there's a whole market for companies that "routinely machine-generate DNA" -- implies that the surprising part of this is not so much that they "created life" as that they were able to reconstruct a simple organism from pure data.

Which is excellent news, in a way: it means that theoretically, we don't even need a viable sample of DNA to resurrect an extinct species; all we'd need is an accurate map of the genome.
posted by ook at 9:08 AM on July 12, 2002


If said symbiote is acellular, has no internal cellular membranes, and no means of reproduction without relying on the cells of living creatures, then yes, it is non-living.

Perhaps, but that sounds awfully (though perhaps necessarily) arbitrary to me.
posted by rushmc at 9:41 AM on July 12, 2002


this really isn't as revolutionary as people are making it seem i think. a similar activity would be downloading a protein structure, making the DNA, inserting it into a cell line and producing the protein. it's pretty neat, because it's a virus, but it's not hard i wouldn't think. and i say viruses are alive, because they replicate and evolve. but that's just me, other people disagree
posted by rhyax at 10:57 AM on July 12, 2002


rushmc: that sounds awfully (though perhaps necessarily) arbitrary to me

I agree that the "self-bounded" rule is somewhat arbitrary. Without that rule, however, you run into the problem of trying to treat ecosystems as living things rather than systems of living things, and it is difficult if not impossible to define the bounds of an ecosystem. If you expand your system view far enough to find definite boundaries (say, to the biosphere of Earth), the definition you have built becomes rather unwieldy and useless.

This, I guess, is the difference between formulating a definition (taxonomy, if you will: a virus "does not match the definition of a living thing") and elucidating the nature of something ("what is life, and from that knowledge, is a virus alive?").
posted by sennoma at 12:26 AM on July 13, 2002


rhyax: i say viruses are alive, because they replicate and evolve

You could build a machine to replicate itself, so replication is not a sufficient defining characteristic of living things. Neither is it a necessary characteristic, mules and so-called "suicide seed" crops being instances of living things which cannot reproduce. Evolution requires a population, so unless you want to disqualify unique things from being living this is also not sufficient as a defining characteristic (besides which, mules cannot evolve either since they can't reproduce).
posted by sennoma at 12:32 AM on July 13, 2002


This does not prove “Man['s] power to create life,” even if viruses were a form of life. Given that the researchers “followed a recipe they downloaded from the internet” to assemble the virus from its constituent proteins, they at best proved Man's ability to act as a compiler. When a human writes a whole new life form from scratch, then I'll be impressed.
posted by Freakho at 6:33 AM on July 14, 2002


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