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Notebook Science

Home-grown smallpox?

Smallpox virus (Everett Historica/Shutterstock)


Home-grown smallpox?

Disease experts worry newly published research will spark the growth of bioterrorism

The advent of the World Wide Web nearly 30 years ago opened the door to a whole new world of information. That information included instructions for just about every do-it-yourself project you can imagine.

Today, people can even obtain DNA sequences online and use them to build viruses. Two virologists at the University of Alberta in Canada did just that. They ordered bits of DNA from a virus that causes horsepox in horses and used them to create a microorganism akin to the one that causes smallpox, the life-threatening infectious disease that the World Health Assembly declared eradicated in 1980. The new microbe even reproduced and infected cells, according to a study the scientists published Jan. 19 in the journal PLOS One.

The research has alarmed experts around the world who fear that publishing the study gives terrorists a do-it-yourself manual to reconstruct the smallpox virus. “The world is now more vulnerable to smallpox,” Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, told Science magazine.

The researchers said their work, funded by Tonix, a pharmaceutical company headquartered in New York City, could assist in the design of cancer-fighting viruses. They said it could also aid development of a safer and more effective smallpox vaccine to protect the public in the event of a bioterrorist attack. But those answers didn’t satisfy critics, who countered that safe smallpox vaccines already exist.

PLOS One said a journal committee unanimously agreed that the benefits of publishing the study outweighed the risks. But Inglesby said that such research should require approval from national and global health authorities. Currently, no such requirement exists: “This ought to be a wake-up call for science agencies and governments.”

Gregory Koblentz, a biodefense expert at George Mason University in Arlington, Va., told Science the research does not pose an immediate threat because the horsepox virus does not sicken humans. But, he warned, eventually other labs will adopt the researchers’ technique and learn how to recreate smallpox, posing “a huge vulnerability.”

(University of Bristol)

Against gravity

Researchers at the University of Bristol have developed sound wave technology that could make it possible to levitate large objects. Engineers already use twisting tractor beams of sound waves to levitate and control solids, liquids, and even small insects. But until now scientists could levitate only objects smaller than the sound beam’s wavelength: Larger objects spin out of control and eventually eject from the beam.

In a study published in Physical Review Letters on Jan. 22, researchers discovered that by rapidly changing the twisting direction of the sound waves, they could increase the size of the tractor beam’s core, allowing it to hold objects up to four times larger than previously possible. The discovery may make it possible to manipulate drug capsules or microsurgical implements within the body. —J.B.


Matters of security

The Pentagon released a National Defense Strategy in January that, for the first time in 10 years, does not list man-made global warming as a security threat and avoids the term “climate change.”

In 2008 the Bush administration added global warming to the defense strategy, and the Obama administration subsequently ratcheted the issue to top priority. But President Donald Trump’s administration has taken a different perspective: His National Security Strategy, released in December, acknowledged that the developing world will require fossil fuels, as well as other forms of energy, to power their economies and lift people out of poverty. —J.B.