Spoiler alert: This blog post makes reference to the plot and characters in Dan Brown’s Inferno.
In Dan Brown’s Inferno, a water-soluble, airborne viral vector carrying Zobrist’s infertility plague has already gone global even before the novel begins. The consequence of this infection, according to Brown, will be to reduce the population by one third. In Burstein and de Keijzer’s Secrets of Inferno, several of the world’s leading population scientists and biotechnologists explain why Zobrist’s phenomenon is impossible. Brown’s math, and his understanding of viruses, are both off. But those flubs are well detailed in Secrets of Inferno, so I won’t reiterate them here.
Instead, I’ll give due diligence to a subject that has not received as much attention to date: real viral vectors. As a molecular biologist, I giggled at Brown’s description of this concept:
Sienna faced him again, her soft brown eyes radiating a darker fear. “He released a virus,” she whispered. “A very specific kind of virus.”
Langdon held his breath. “Tell me.”
“Bertrand created something known as a viral vector. It’s a virus intentionally designed to install genetic information into the cell it’s attacking.” Sienna paused to let him process the idea. “A vector virus . . . rather than killing its host cell . . . inserts a piece of predetermined DNA into that cell, essentially modifying the cell’s genome.”
Langdon struggled to grasp her meaning. This virus changes our DNA?
Sounds ominous, right? Well, it’s not. The truth is, we have been creating viral vectors routinely for decades. We use them to infect everything from humans, to animals, to plants, to bacteria. Let me explain how.
We start with a run-of-the-mill viral vector, which we can purchase online for a couple hundred bucks. This is just a circular piece of DNA that contains all of the machinery needed to replicate or insert itself into a genome. Here’s a map of one.
Now, see all those little spots that say “ScaI,” “BamHI,” “XbaI,” and so-forth? Those are called restriction enzyme sites. They allow you to cut the DNA in an exact, specific spot. When you’ve cut another piece of DNA with the same restriction enzyme, you end up with two pieces of DNA that fit together like two pieces of a puzzle. So you then use a little DNA glue, called ligase, to splice one piece of DNA into the other, and voila, you’ve just created a viral vector. In sum, the generation of a viral vector is fairly straightforward.
What you will use the vector for, and whether or not it will actually work, are the tricky parts. The Zobrists of the world are striving today to use viral vectors to infect specific cell types in a specific human in a specific way at a specific time and with a specific purpose—a field within molecular biology known as gene therapy. The gene therapy approach is explained here:
Unfortunately, using viral vectors for some beneficial endpoint is not as easy as just gluing two pieces of DNA together, because getting that DNA into the right spot at the right time is a bit of an art form. The approach has been in development since the 1960s; yet, no Zobrist to date has created a one-size-fits-all virus with 100 percent success. So while a virus that can alter the genome to induce sterility is certainly not impossible at some time in the future, the infertility plague described in Inferno is not on the horizon anytime soon. And the human race, like print runs of Dan Brown’s books, will continue to multiply.
Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a cancer drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope. She lives in San Diego with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. Please visit her website at http://www.kristenelisephd.com.