How Canadian researchers reconstituted an extinct poxvirus for $100,000 using mail-order DNA

Jul 10, 2017

By Kai Kupferschmidt

Eradicating smallpox, one of the deadliest diseases in history, took humanity decades and cost billions of dollars. Bringing the scourge back would probably take a small scientific team with little specialized knowledge half a year and cost about $100,000.

That’s one conclusion from an unusual and as-yet unpublished experiment performed last year by Canadian researchers. A group led by virologist David Evans of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, says it has synthesized the horsepox virus, a relative of smallpox, from genetic pieces ordered in the mail. Horsepox is not known to harm humans—and like smallpox, researchers believe it no longer exists in nature; nor is it seen as a major agricultural threat. But the technique Evans used could be used to recreate smallpox, a horrific disease that was declared eradicated in 1980. “No question. If it’s possible with horsepox, it’s possible with smallpox,” says virologist Gerd Sutter of Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany.

Evans hopes the research—most of which was done by research associate Ryan Noyce—will help unravel the origins of a centuries-old smallpox vaccine and lead to new, better vaccines or even cancer therapeutics. Scientifically, the achievement isn’t a big surprise. Researchers had assumed it would one day be possible to synthesize poxviruses since virologists assembled the much smaller poliovirus from scratch in 2002. But the new work—like the poliovirus reconstitutions before it—is raising troubling questions about how terrorists or rogue states could use modern biotechnology. Given that backdrop, the study marks “an important milestone, a proof of concept of what can be done with viral synthesis,“ says bioethicist Nicholas Evans—who’s not related to David Evans—of the University of Massachusetts in Lowell.

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