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March 10, 2015

Smallpox as an example of a multi-species virus?

Filed under: General,Perspective — Tags: , , , — Bryan @ 5:35 pm

Years ago, researchers decoded the complete genetic sequence of Smallpox. Since then labs have decoded other variants but for this thought exercise let’s talk about “Variola virus strain Bangladesh 1975 v75-550 Banu”, for which a complete genome decoding was submitted to the CDC in 2006 and is currently available to the public from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) website. Yes, you read that correctly. You can download the entire genetic sequence for Smallpox from a public web page and have been able to for some time now. As of 2014, complete DNA sequences of roughly 50 smallpox samples are available to the general public.

Granted this availability of the data (even when it was only printed in journals) has been a point of concern and debate in some communities. The common discussion carries around concerns of someone recreating a synthetic Smallpox virus to infect people. This was even discussed as a key concern for why the last strains should not be destroyed just last year in 2014.

What I’m more fascinated in though, and something my wife pointed out recently, is that by carrying the complete genome of Smallpox into a digital form and putting it in a public space the virus has in effect jumped hosts/species.

Countless web crawlers, archivers, and random web users (of all intents) have made copies of the web page holding this code. I’m sure there are even pages that duplicate the content and those too have been crawled, archived, etc…

Even if humanity destroyed all living strains of the virus, this digital version has the potential to persist indefinitely at this point (or at the least, indefinitely from the perspective of you and I). Where the virus goes from here is really anyone’s guess, but for now it is actively replicating and being transmitted globally and automatically by it’s new digital host, the Internet.

And no, I’m not linking to the virus… go ask Google.

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