In the not-so-distant future, “synbio” could lead to global catastrophe—maybe

Enlarge / Artist’s impression of a post-superbug world. (This is the cover art for Stephen King’s The Stand, a story wherein a genetically enhanced superflu causes the end of the world. thatsthejoke.gif.) (credit: John Cayea / Doubleday)

We’re running a series of companion posts this week to accompany our special edition Ars Lunch Break podcast. This is the first of three guest posts centered around Rob’s TED talk below. Tomorrow we’ll have a post continuing the discussion from geneticist George Church, and Thusday we’ll have one from microbiologist Andrew Hessel.

The H5N1 flu strain makes SARS and swine flu look almost cuddly. But though it kills higher percentages of infected patients than even Ebola, this ghastly flu variant claimed just five human lives over the past three years. Happily, it’s barely contagious amongst humans.

In 2011, two separate research teams—one in Holland, the other in Wisconsin—set out to repair this “defect” in H5N1. By carefully manipulating the bug’s genome, they soon had something just as lethal as the classic edition, but also wildly contagious. And if it escaped the lab, scientists believed it “would trigger an influenza pandemic, quite possibly with many millions of deaths,” according to the news arm of one of the world’s top academic journals, Science.

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