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 for key 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, researchers with 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