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Biology Help Desk: Volume 6

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  • how possible is it for an 'indie' biotech group to make a 'mutant bird flu'? what equipment is required, and how expensive is it?

    • Transmission of the flu is dependent on two proteins in particular - which is why we heard of strains like H1N1, H3N2, etc, each referring to variants of the two key proteins. For a research group to change the composition of the proteins, they have to work with the flu genome on the DNA level, and then infect it into a test subject.

      Hence the shopping list would be, at the very least, the following (including really only the most specialized and expensive bits here):
      • Thermocycler (for DNA work)
      • Bacteria
    • I assume you mean specifically a strain of bird flu which would be more harmful to humans, for use as a weapon. The answer in this case is that it isn't very prohibitive in terms of equipment; a well-stocked lab, general-purpose biology lab could probably be put together for under half a million dollars: thermal cyclers are cheap, reagents are cheap, incubators are cheap, pipettes are cheap. The most expensive piece would be the hardware to do DNA sequencing to confirm what changes have occurred; technicall

      • the schutzstaffel was able to find plenty of amoral scientists and doctors to fill its ranks. then of course, there was unit 731.

        • That required propaganda on a scale that only a government could execute. Times have somewhat changed since, largely because of what happened during World War II. Scientific and medical culture has changed so that such people are much less common.
      • A simpler route for the aspiring supervillian would be naturally supporting evolution through eugenics: infect a population of pigs with the disease, and then place the corpses of the pigs who die first into the next population, ad infinitum. This sort of process has been used commercially to make genetically-modified crops more resistant to disease and herbicides. For this, all you'd need is a big enough warehouse, a lot of pigs, and the various facilities to maintain them all. Perhaps also a clipboard or two.

        I'm not sure I would agree with that as being a useful strategy for encouraging flu mutagenesis, for a couple reasons.

        Even if we assume that the aspiring bio-terrorist doesn't care about ethical concerns, pigs take a lot of space and resources. They generate waste that needs to be dealt with, and the husbandry needs to be maintained to ensure that the die-off rate is indeed driven by the flu and not anything else in the environment. You could end up with a bacterial infection spreading through the po

      • by robotkid (681905)

        I assume you mean specifically a strain of bird flu which would be more harmful to humans, for use as a weapon. The answer in this case is that it isn't very prohibitive in terms of equipment; a well-stocked lab, general-purpose biology lab could probably be put together for under half a million dollars: thermal cyclers are cheap, reagents are cheap, incubators are cheap, pipettes are cheap. The most expensive piece would be the hardware to do DNA sequencing to confirm what changes have occurred; technically you could just leave this out. This would not be a particularly safe working environment, however; a BSL 3 lab (the kind appropriate to studying contagious human diseases) would be much more expensive to put together and easily cost a couple of million dollars. For test subjects, as morbid as this is, I'd probably recommend pigs or stray cats, both of which are known to be susceptible.

        Much more challenging would be the task of getting well-trained researchers who are willing to engineer such a weapon. The people with substantial knowledge of influenza are either doctors (under the Hippocratic Oath) or PhDs in the life sciences (who got their knowledge because they were expressly interested in helping people.) You might also have a lot of trouble getting the equipment in the first place, since some more expensive pieces require licenses to operate.

        A simpler route for the aspiring supervillian would be naturally supporting evolution through eugenics: infect a population of pigs with the disease, and then place the corpses of the pigs who die first into the next population, ad infinitum. This sort of process has been used commercially to make genetically-modified crops more resistant to disease and herbicides. For this, all you'd need is a big enough warehouse, a lot of pigs, and the various facilities to maintain them all. Perhaps also a clipboard or two.

        The second route may appear to be slower, but I'm not sure if we know enough about the flu genome that directly modifying it would really make us any more efficient at getting it to do something specifically bad.

        I would add a couple of zeroes to the estimate. You need an animal facility for studying emerging infectious diseases, as only the diseases that are so well understood that we can already treat them typically have established cell-culture models (and even them my pathogen colleagues don't trust them much). Sure, maybe you are in a 3rd world country where there is no PETA/OSHA/CDC etc and you are working for a despot. You still need containment to keep infected animals separate from healthy ones or you ca

        • As always, your insight is appreciated. Thanks for keeping an eye out. (I should probably start adding a disclaimer about the depth of my medical knowledge to these posts...)
      • by neyla (2455118)
        The people with substantial knowledge of influenza are either doctors (under the Hippocratic Oath) or PhDs in the life sciences (who got their knowledge because they were expressly interested in helping people.)

        People get degrees for all kinds of reasons - asserting that everyone with a life-sciences PhD is motivated by "helping people" seems unfounded. Nevertheless, you're right; the expertise is certainly harder to come by than the equipment. That's true for most things these days.

        • You have to be a pretty hardened sociopath to get that far into medicine and not have a profound respect for life, honestly. The deeper you understand something, the harder it gets to want to harm it. The core motive may not be helping people (in fact, I can confirm it almost always is about money, fame, and glory) but it is validated by the public perception of doing a good deed.
  • Grad school? Med school? Something else? Biology degrees are enormously versatile in that regard...
    • Grad school. My degree is actually computer science, although med school was technically an option. Believe it or not, I'm not really much of one for medicine; I'm more interested in big questions about evolution.
  • Thank you, Samantha, for this Journal entry.

    I am writing a book with a story I'd like to keep as plausible as possible.
    In this book, an engineered pathogen (I chose virus) kills most of mankind, save a few (say, 1 in 40000). The trick is that it "should" kill all those people within 24 hours tops.
    So the restraints are:

    1. A living pathogen (so not gas, not radiation, etc). Can be a virus, a bacteria, a microscopic parasite...
    2. Should be micro-organism (no Anime tentacle-ridden thingie)
    3. Should only target

    • Viruses don't generally adopt a diverse array of methods of killing. They reproduce like mad until they've run out of things to kill, then they spread and kill something else. A variety of ancillary methods for killing the host is something you really only see over huge distances. In short, #4 could never be possible unless the viruses were engineered in the first place, specifically to be diverse.

      A time-bomb pathogen could be triggered globally through a rapid change in the Earth's magnetic field. C.f. the [wikipedia.org]

      • I understand the confusion.
        The initial theorem was "engineered". That could change. The real focus of the book is what happens afterwards, 99% of the book is about the aftermath and evolutionary paths of various survivors who develop various mutant traits (not X-Men-like mutations) such as extreme resistance to cold or feet mutations allowing some of them to leap like a frog.

        Radiation is a no-go because it doesn't result in evolutionary mutations during the same generation. A pathogen could theoretically al

        • You're nearly there, I think—but keep in mind that the evolutionary changes might very well have to be pre-programmed for this to work. Have you ever read the Chrysalids? It deals with a similar scenario, but with many generations having passed since global nuclear war. (Disturbingly, the only remnants of civilization other than New Zealand are in Newfoundland.)

          As someone who has written and read her fair share of sf, I'd caution against a plot that focuses on the effects of a phenomenon that requires

          • Ok, so the book deals with the after-effects of an infection that kills most of mankind, save for cca 1 person out of roughly 40.000. The remaining living people are not completely immune, but rather their DNA gets altered in various ways. To make an analogy, it's like mixing an enormous amount of letters together, then try reading words out of them. A vast majority will be gibberish (representing the dead). Very rare in-between, you will see words which are almost exact, but, say, one letter is different (

            • Unless the virus involved is very specifically engineered to produce beneficial traits from a pool of known benefits + detrimental traits from a pool of known detriments (which would be supremely corny), the results you're describing are completely impossible. Almost all of the survivors would be severely sick, with few (less than one in a billion) if any having any benefits whatsoever visible. Biology is great when it comes to 'will it still work if I change one letter?', but only because gene sequences ha

              • Thank you very much for your answers. It became much clearer what needs to be done and how.
                I now realize I need to rethink my strategy. Your information was very helpful and I thank you once again.

                • No problem—sorry to disappoint, though. Let me know what you settle on!
                  • Well, for now I've gone with the "we don't know how or why this happened, but this is what happened and there's no way to revert it". Probably it's going to end with a twist. Honestly, I wouldn't reveal it (because I am still to choose between a few possibilities and I'll try going with the wave).

                    • As long as you do reveal it before the end of the book. :) As I mentioned, In Time opted to never explain why the dominant form of currency was now "seconds until death" (much less why handshaking and pickpocketing were equivalent), and despite some really well-written parts and plausible explanations, it ended up with so many ugly plot holes that no one was willing to swallow it at the end. So you will have to come up with something. Anyway—good luck!
        • by neyla (2455118)

          various mutant traits (not X-Men-like mutations) such as extreme resistance to cold or feet mutations allowing some of them to leap like a frog.

          That sounds *exactly* like X-Men. Real mutations aren't like that, with sudden and huge (read noticeable!) changes.

          Cold-resistant-feet isn't something that'll show up as the result of some random mucking around with DNA.

          • Yes, I got that already :)
            This wasn't supposed to be X-men-like, because the environment is grim; X-men are healthy individuals with powers. My book envisions people with some advantages which come with lots of strings attached.

  • How possible would it be to engineer a virus that would kill the host, but reanimate the cadaver and cause it to seek out other humans for purposes of propagating infection and/or brain consumption? Are you aware of any diseases or viruses in the natural world that can cause dead tissue to take on motor function?

    • Re:Zombies (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Samantha Wright (1324923) on Monday April 02, 2012 @09:29AM (#39548575) Homepage Journal

      Dead tissue is useless tissue. Nothing in nature moves when it's dead unless it's being pushed. The moment metabolic activity has stopped (in humans, about three minutes after the heart stops) bacteria and other recyclers begin to do their jobs, destroying the ability of critical cells to function. Once rigor mortis sets in, three to four hours later, the body is completely incapable of being moved through electrical (or nervous) stimulation, as the muscles (which operate on a principle similar to a forklift) become fused due to the absence of ATP. When rigor mortis fades, 2-3 days after death, these frozen parts are destroyed, and the muscle cells are just useless bags of mush. In short, reanimating dead tissue is completely out of the question for anything short of a bad deus ex machina in a Hollywood film.

      If you want a zombie, think less dead, more infected. There are lots of parasites [usatoday.com] that [wikipedia.org] screw with behaviour [wired.com] in a dramatic way, and guarantee the animal will die in the near future. Worry about those. (And never travel to Africa.)

      • by robotkid (681905)

        Dead tissue is useless tissue. Nothing in nature moves when it's dead unless it's being pushed. The moment metabolic activity has stopped (in humans, about three minutes after the heart stops) bacteria and other recyclers begin to do their jobs, destroying the ability of critical cells to function. Once rigor mortis sets in, three to four hours later, the body is completely incapable of being moved through electrical (or nervous) stimulation, as the muscles (which operate on a principle similar to a forklift) become fused due to the absence of ATP. When rigor mortis fades, 2-3 days after death, these frozen parts are destroyed, and the muscle cells are just useless bags of mush. In short, reanimating dead tissue is completely out of the question for anything short of a bad deus ex machina in a Hollywood film.

        If you want a zombie, think less dead, more infected. There are lots of parasites [usatoday.com] that [wikipedia.org] screw with behaviour [wired.com] in a dramatic way, and guarantee the animal will die in the near future. Worry about those. (And never travel to Africa.)

        Great examples, I'd like to add the most zombie-relevant one, though, the wasp parasite that mind-controls a "zombie" spider into making a specially designed nest for the larva with its silk spinner, and then it parks itself in the center to be a snack larva when they hatch (it is still alive as Samantha points out, just somehow mind controlled via some injected toxin).

        http://www.damninteresting.com/mind-controlling-wasps-and-zombie-spiders/ [damninteresting.com]

        here's a whole gallery of zombie-insect examples:
        http://discovermag [discovermagazine.com]

      • by neyla (2455118)

        Good advice. For example, dogs with rabies are in some ways a close analogue to zombie dogs. Consider them from the perspective of a healthy dog. Yeah okay, they're not out to eat brains, but they *do* frequently show increase in aggression and attack without provocation, afterwhich the bitten may himself be infected, continuing the spread.

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