Poliovirus and one of the Science Heroes that made this Headline Possible: Eckard Wimmer, Ph.D.
Polio has been around for centuries – but it’s almost gone – thanks to the efforts of many scientists, such as Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, as well as Eckard Wimmer, Ph.D., a National Academy of Sciences Scholar. Polio was first described clinically back in 1789 but it wasn’t until nearly a century later in 1894 that the first polio epidemic occurred. Polio peaked in 1952 when 3,145 people died and thousands more were paralyzed. Around this time, the first vaccines were introduced which had a profound impact reducing the incidence of this disease and inspired one scientist in particular who went on to achieve breakthroughs in poliovirus after fleeing Berlin at the height of WWII, then later fleeing East Germany to continue his studies.
Dr. Wimmer, then a chemist, became fascinated by poliovirus as the first example of a self-replicating chemical and pathogenic entity, “a chemical with a life cycle”, and dug in to research its biology. He and his lab were the first to sequence a eukaryotic RNA virus. They also elucidated its unique structure (the first RNA virus to be linked to a protein later discovered to be involved in RNA replication) as well as to decipher the genetic organization of the poliovirus genome. These groundbreaking efforts enabled Dr. Wimmer to chemically synthesize the poliovirus genome – essentially becoming the first to successfully synthesize a living organism outside a cell. In short, the world’s first test-tube virus was “born”, and, along with it, the dawning of the age of synthetic biology.