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"Armed with a fake email address, a would-be bioterrorist could probably order the building blocks of a deadly biological weapon on line and receive them by post within weeks," reports New Scientist magazine. A skilled geneticist with access to a university-level lab could then use the DNA to create Ebola, smallpox, the 1918 flu, or other potential bioweapons.

"Currently, there is no law that says the that a U.S. company can't make the genome for smallpox and send it to anyone," said geneticist Michael Stebbins of the Federation of American Scientists.

More than a dozen biotech companies make up the new field of commercial gene synthesis. Customers can have the firms construct complete genome or order partial genomes and piece the DNA together themselves.

DNA synthesis is part threat, part promise. It can mean cheap and widely available drugs synthesized from rare plants. It can also provide valuable-- albeit potentially dangerous-- research material. IN 2002 Eckard Wimmer OF the State University of New York at Stony Brook created live, infectious polioviruses from scratch using synthetic DNA. And this year, in an astonishing breakthrough, scientists recreated the flu virus that killed 50 million people in the great 1918 pandemic.

That virus is comprised of eight genes, five of which--harvested from the lungs of a doughboy who died during World War I--have been available for a while. The remaining three segments were discovered in the disinterred corpse an Inuit woman buried for nearly a century in permafrost. Scientists hoped that the complete DNA would reveal why the 1918 flu was so deadly and would help protect against lethal new strains including the H5N1 avian flu.

The genetic code for the 1918 flu is now available on the internet. A request for pieces of it from the new gene synthesis firms would appear to be "a perfectly reasonable and legitimate research request from someone working on viruses," said Stebbins.

And regulations on what can be sent to whom are lax. Of 12 firms that New Scientist queried, only five screened every sequence requested; four screened some, and three admitted to not screening any at all. In addition, some Western firms may be outsourcing DNA production to cheap labor countries, including China.

Asked if he could make the 1918 flu virus, Stebbins said, "Yeah absolutely. Once you have the DNA and the right equipment, it is very, very easy."