Cloning and synthesizing viruses: A faster way to prevent future pandemics

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Cloning and synthesizing viruses: A faster way to prevent future pandemics

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Cloning and synthesizing viruses: A faster way to prevent future pandemics

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Scientists are replicating viruses’ DNA in the lab to better understand how they spread and how they can be stopped.
    • Author:
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      Quantumrun Foresight
    • September 29, 2022

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    Research in virology (studying viruses and viral diseases) usually begins with reconstructing and modifying the genomes of disease-causing viruses. These genetic experiments are crucial for studying a virus’ method of infection, how it spreads, and potential treatments and vaccines.

    Cloning and synthesizing viruses context

    Viral diseases have consistently posed a threat to human beings. These highly pathogenic infections have caused much suffering throughout history, often playing a pivotal role in the outcome of wars and other world events. Accounts of viral outbreaks, like smallpox, measles, HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), SARS-CoV (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus), the 1918 influenza virus, and others, document the devastating effects of these diseases. These viral outbreaks have led scientists worldwide to clone and synthesize viruses to identify them quickly and produce effective vaccines and antidotes. 

    When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in 2020, global researchers used cloning to study the virus’ genetic composition. Scientists may stitch DNA fragments to replicate a viral genome and introduce them into bacteria. However, this method is not ideal for all viruses—especially coronaviruses. Because coronaviruses have large genomes, this makes it difficult for bacteria to replicate effectively. In addition, parts of the genome can be unstable or toxic to bacteria—though the reason isn’t yet fully understood. 

    In contrast, cloning and synthesizing viruses are advancing biological warfare (BW) efforts. Biological warfare releases microorganisms or poisons that intend to kill, disable, or terrify the enemy while also devastating national economies in tiny doses. These microorganisms are classed as weapons of mass destruction because even small quantities might produce many casualties. 

    Disruptive impact

    In 2020, in the race to develop a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, scientists from the Switzerland-based University of Bern turned to an unusual tool: yeast. Unlike other viruses, SARS-CoV-2 cannot be grown in human cells in the lab, making it challenging to study. But the team developed a fast and efficient method of cloning and synthesizing the virus using yeast cells. The process, described in a paper published in the science journal Nature, used transformation-associated recombination (TAR) to fuse short DNA fragments into whole chromosomes in yeast cells. This technique allowed scientists to quickly and easily replicate the virus genome. The method has been used to clone a version of the virus that encodes a fluorescent reporter protein, allowing scientists to screen potential drugs for their ability to block the virus.

    While this discovery offers many advantages over traditional cloning methods, it also has risks. Cloning viruses in yeast can lead to the spread of yeast infections in humans, and there is the risk that an engineered virus could escape from a lab. Nonetheless, scientists believe the cloning process offers a powerful tool for quickly replicating viruses and developing effective treatments or vaccines. Additionally, researchers are investigating the implementation of TAR to clone other viruses, including MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and Zika.

    Implications of cloning and synthesizing viruses

    Wider implications of cloning and synthesizing viruses may include: 

    • Continuing research on emerging viruses, enabling governments to prepare for potential epidemics or pandemics.
    • Biopharma fast-tracking drug development and production against viral diseases.
    • The increasing use of virus cloning to identify biological weapons. However, some organizations might do the same to develop better chemical and biological poisons.
    • Governments being increasingly pressured to be transparent about its publicly funded virology studies and the replication being done in their labs, including contingency plans for when/if these viruses escape.
    • Larger public and private investments into virus cloning research. These projects may lead to increased employment in the sector.

    Questions to comment on

    • How else do you think cloning viruses can accelerate studies on viral diseases?
    • What are the other possible dangers of reproducing viruses in the lab?

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