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Kurzweil & Joy protest risky (natural) nanomachine recipe publication

In an Oct 17 New York Times op-ed, Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy combine forces to question the recent publication of the genome for the dangerous 1918 flu virus: “We urgently need international agreements by scientific organizations to limit such publications and an international dialogue on the best approach to preventing recipes for weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands. Part of that discussion should concern the appropriate role of governments, scientists and their scientific societies, and industry.

“We also need a new Manhattan Project to develop specific defenses against new biological viral threats, natural or human made. There are promising new technologies, like RNA interference, that could be harnessed. We need to put more stones on the defensive side of the scale.”

The virus in question is a natural molecular machine system. Their comments will apply equally well to such systems which are built artificially someday. (Credit Tyler Emerson)

2 Responses to “Kurzweil & Joy protest risky (natural) nanomachine recipe publication”

  1. Robert Bradbury Says:

    Actually, it is incorrect to conclude that *any* virus is a “molecular machine system”.

    All viruses are devoid of any machinery. At most they contain the nucleic acid instructions required for making copies of themselves (the RNA or DNA of their genetic program) and a protein coat “package”, perhaps within a lipid envelope, which serves as a carrier for the genetic program.

    Viruses require the molecular machinery of cells to manufacture any virus specific proteins required for their normal life cycle.

    It would be incorrect to consider any virus (flu/influenza, SARS, HIV, measles, Herpes, CMV, etc.) to be a “molecular machine system”. At best they can be considered to be cardboard tubes containing blueprints for the construction of a few molecular machines (such as reverse transcriptase which turns HIV’s RNA into DNA, or the integrase that integrates the HIV DNA into the human genome, or the phi29 DNA packaging motor that stuffs the DNA viral DNA blueprint copies back into the protein containers).

    Blueprints for molecular machines are not the same as actual machines.

    The minimal genome which can manufacture molecular machines and can self-replicate appears to require in the neighborhood of ~250 genes and there are *very* few viruses capable of carrying a genome of that size.

    Interestingly, the influenza viruses which kill many people each year and range from the 1918 pandemic strain that have Ray and Bill so upset to the H5N1 bird flu strain which is making many people somewhat crazy at this time has a genome which only encodes for 10 or 11 genes/proteins. So self-replication is not a required feature in order to be quite dangerous

  2. Christine Peterson Says:

    Hi Robert — I agree that viruses are not self-replicating, but please help me understand why you think they are not molecular machine systems.

    From the Nanomedicine glossary:

    “Molecular machine — a mechanical device that performs a useful function using components of nanometer scale and a well-defined molecular structure; may include both artificial nanomachines and naturally occurring devices found in biological systems.

    “Molecular machine system — a system of molecular machines”

    Doesn’t a virus qualify according to this definition, and if so, perhaps you disagree with the definition?

    –C

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