Frankenvirus: Don’t We Have Enough Problems?


Imagine that the camera pans onto a vast landscape of frozen trees. We see a handful of men in the great Siberian tundra as they find an ancient virus, frozen for more than 40,000 years. Shortly afterward, sitting with café au lait and croissants (because they are French), one says, “Hey, let’s bring that ancient virus back to life.” And they all cheer. They have a Frankenvirus!

That sounds like the start of a really good horror film. Will the virus turn them and everyone else into zombies? Imagine Dr. Frankenstein screaming “It’s alive! It’s alive!” What could go wrong? Even better, think of Jurassic Park.

“Why not bring back dinosaurs? We can control them by making sure they’re all female so there can’t be any reproduction? Oops, we have a little problem. We don’t have a complete DNA. Let’s fill in the blanks with DNA from the African tree frog, one of the few animals capable of changing its sex. Oh, look at all the extra nasty velociraptors!” That was the old version. In the latest version, human DNA was added. Of course, that would solve everything by creating smart dinosaurs.

In the movies and on television, this kind of thing is the central theme behind great special effects and horror movies. But now we have it in real life. French scientists recently announced that they found a new, prehistoric virus in the frozen Siberian wastelands and are planning to bring it back to life. The virus is called Mollivirus sibericum, translated as “soft virus from Siberia,” and measures at 0.6 microns, just over a thousandth of a millimeter. Thus, it is officially termed a “giant virus.”

It is also a monster among other viruses, with 523 genetic proteins, while, for comparison, a flu virus genome has only 11. And, of course, we have no problems at all with that little guy. It has only killed several hundred million people. Why not take chances with a big one?

Now I am having a bit of fun with this. We know, of course, that governments are there to always protect us. When they make promises, they always keep them, right? I do enjoy going to the movies or staying at home to watch a good zombie flick, although at my age, I would prefer not to live (or be undead) through a real one.

At the same time as scientists are hailing all of these fun experiments, some are also screaming about genetically modified foods. All you have to do is go to the supermarket and you’ll find signs pointing you to “unmodified foods.” Yes, they are far more expensive, but, after all, do we want to eat these “unnatural foods?” Actually, the changes are mostly minimal and done for useful effect. The first “green revolution” in India was established through these techniques to provide disease-resistant wheat. Thus we stopped hearing about “the starving children of India” as that huge nation began to feed itself.

When other variations were created for Africa as a way of preventing mass starvation on that continent, European farmers, who worried that cheaper African foods would ruin their markets, created a fuss over the changes. It is one that continues today, although there have been just about no ill effects that have been scientifically proven.

On the other hand, mobs have destroyed “yellow rice” seeds aimed for the Philippines. What was the big change there? Added vitamin A not normally found in rice but needed to offset tens of thousands of cases of blindness among the children there was added through genetic modifications. So, the rice didn’t grow, and the blindness continues. Scientists are working on a way to use genetics to prevent bird flu in chickens. They haven’t worked it out yet, but people die from avian flu, and it would be nice to get rid of it. But the mobs argue differently.

But while pseudo-scientists and the credulous worry about a safe technology, why not fool around with the Frankenvirus? Will mankind be better off if we understand viruses that died about before civilization began? Do we even know if civilization began because these viruses died? Personally, I’d rather spend the money on curing a few already existing diseases. That makes me a barbarian.