April 20, 2005
What Happens When Everyone Can Do Genetic Engineering?

Some popular fears about dangers that will arise as a result of technologcal advances have gotten far more attention than other threats that strike me as equally plausible. For example, one much discussed fear is "nanotech goo". Nanotech goo could take over the world if self-replicating nanotech devices get out of a factory or lab and overrun the whole world. The TV show Stargate SG-1 even has a recurring theme of replicators trying to take over the Milky Way Galaxy or Thor's galaxy (and if you don't know who Thor is from the show he's the leader of the Asgard race of extremely advanced beings who have posed to humans on various planets as Norse Gods of Earth mythology).

The DNA-based biological organism nightmare scenario that attracts the most attention is the release of genetically engineered killer viruses or bacteria that could wipe out much or all of the human race. I grant that threat is plausible and the attention that threat receives is understandable. However, in the future we will face a more general biological threat that has received far less attention: the genetic engineering of organisms that either through infection or environmental competition wipe out or greatly decrease the size of other species.

Think about the world 50 years hence. Genetic engineering will no longer be the province solely of Ph.D. scientists working in large teams under corporate and government direction with very expensive equipment. Genetic engineering will inevitably become accessible to low skilled hobbyists working with small budgets. That is going to create enormous potential for mischief and worse. Think Rottweilers bred for ferocity are a threat at the local park? Wait till homies decide to compete to genetically engineer dogs that are the most dangerous in the neighborhood. Heck, why limit oneself to dogs? Mountain lions, cougars, and cheetahs will serve as genetic starting material for cognitive reengineering to make them highly trainable and controllable by humans.

You see the problem here? People are going to take many existing species and modify their DNA for fun. This will be easy to do. One doesn't need to be a mechanical or electrical engineer to modify and enhance a car in all sorts of ways. Well, the same will be true of all the species of biological life.

Let us return to the example of genetically engineered pathogens. Imagine some Muslim extremist in 2050 deciding that all black dogs should be killed to please Allah. He'll have some theological basis for this opinion. He might also be able to genetically engineer a virus that would be highly transmissible and capable of selectively killing black dogs. Or suppose someone decides snakes are all evil representatives of Satan on Earth and decides to make viruses aimed at wiping out various species of snakes. Cheap high tech equipment will make development of such viruses easy to do.

Hobbyist level genetic engineering equipment will also open up the possibility for all sorts of pranks. How about a virus spray placed on the desk of some annoying boss that makes his skin green or purple? Or imagine a genetically engineer a virus to give a person a temporary mild case of Tourette's Syndrome so that he says exactly what he is thinking.

Another possibility is illustrated by invasive species. Species intentionally or accidentally carried by humans between continents and to islands have outcompeted existing species. Australia has lost many species to rabbits and to other species introduced by humans. Hawaii is undergoing a similar process of plant and animal invasion which is driving species to extinction. Invading ants are leading to bird extinctions because the ants destroy species the birds eat. The same is happening in other parts of the world. Eucalyptus trees in California are from Australia, displace native trees, and do not create the high quality of wood that they produce in Australia (thereby defeating the purpose of their introduction).

The phenomenon of invasive species will be replicated more powerfully with genetically engineered species. In a few decades hobbyists will be able to take an existing species of rat and genetically engineer it to be capable of outcompeting wild natural rats. Introduction of such a rat would lead to the gradual displacement of wildtype. Hobbyists could even engage in competitions with each other to see who can create the new winning rat species. Laws won't stop them. Just as there are computer virus writers the world over breaking laws trying to build more successful computer viruses so there will be kids trying to code up more successful rodents.

Genetically engineered species competition could be carried out with many types of starter species. A grass could be genetically engineered to outcompete other types of grasses. The same could be done with bushes and trees. A bird could be genetically engineered to be a better hunter of rodents and released into the wild might wipe out some rodent species and other bird species.

Why will people release their own genetically engineered species into the wild? For kicks. For fame. Out of anger. To see if it can be done. To immortalize themselves by having their own species live all over the world. To remake some part of physical geography in their image. Vanity, pride, a desire to be noticed, a desire to strike out at the world, all the normal human failings will be at work.

Anyone see reasons why this won't happen? Strikes me as inevitable.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 April 20 02:33 PM  Dangers Bioengineering

back40 said at April 20, 2005 3:22 PM:

The post would be more useful if it also speculated on countermeasures. Laws, obviously, are irrelevant. Politics isn't a useful tool. But projecting 45 years of advancement with an implicit assumption that no one will be working the countermeasures angle is unlikely to be accurate. I suspect you could, if you were interested, develop a part II or companion post that creatively imagined the evolution of methods to detect, contain and neutralize escaped genomes.

rsilvetz said at April 20, 2005 3:29 PM:

The only chance I see of this NOT happening, at maybe a 0.00001 % chance, is if we wake up as a species and abandon mystical delusional behaviors.

But witnessing the absurdity of the outpouring for both the defunct pope and the new one, I despair of ever seeing that happen. And I won't even touch Islam, which historically originated from big M watering down Judaism.

So I bet on Randall on this one.

Randall Parker said at April 20, 2005 3:51 PM:


I thought about talking about countermeasures. But the post was already quite long.

My problem with countermeasures is that they'd inevitably be almost as bad as what they'd be fighting and still not necessarily work.

How to stop a new rat (we'll call it Rat II) from displacing old rats? Genetically enhance the old rats to create yet another rat variant (we'll call it Rat III) to take on the new rats? If the Rat II group of new rats were really bad then I could see the value of trying to outcompete them. But if Rat II was successful because it could utilize a larger range of food sources Rat III would need to be even better at utilizing those food sources - or it would need to be genetically engineered to sense and hunt down Rat II. The analogy here is the Irish Wolf Hound that hunts down wolves.

Or how about species that are not so accessible? Imagine that someone genetically engineers some new variation on phytoplankton and dumps it into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We might not notice for months or years.

Nature is enormous. The sheer number of living organisms is so great we can't possibly watch them all and look for signs that some are genetically not wildtype.

Look at nuclear power for an analogy. It is far easier to attack than to defend against it. I suspect it will be far easier to develop and release new species variants than track and stop them.

back40 said at April 20, 2005 4:26 PM:

Rat plague, genetically targeted to RatII.

Plankton virus, targeted to plankton II. We are already contemplating phage therapy for red tides and dead zones.

Detection is an interesting thought experiment. We are developing a number of new sensor technologies with space based as well as "smart dust" deployment systems. Primitive versions are already in use for environmental monitoring. Materials science as well as biotech continually enhance our abilities to measure and monitor.

It is easier to attack than defend. Your current examples with network hacking show that, but it is always and everywhere true. Nature throws new challenges all the time, and always does damage for a time, though countermeasures arrive in due course. Humans will do as well or better but face the same dynamics.

The threats you imagine are real. The damage they do is real. There's no security, just symptomatic treatment. There's no cure, no final solution, no end to the threat of complete defeat. All true. Still, it is useful to contemplate ways to defend against threats.

I suspect that remediation will be as big an issue as preservation. Once the plague is defeated there will be work to restore damaged areas and species. Losses need not be final. It will be an expensive, never ending chore not without its satisfactions and rewards. Doctors and firemen have some insights about these things. . . not to mention home makers.

Kurt said at April 20, 2005 5:04 PM:

Making a designer virus that can kill most of the human race, I believe, is more difficult than it would first appear. Such a design must both be highly transmissive and highly virulent at the same time. These are traits that are often "design tradeoffs" in designing a "killer" virus. Viruses that kill thier hosts don't live very long. Other design criteria include length of incubation period (which should be as long as possible) and the resistance of the virus to environmental conditions (outside the body). Extremely virulent viruses, such as Ebola and Marburg, have very little environmental resistance and, thus are not highly transmissive in the airborne sense, even though they are highly virulent (90% lethal).

Cold and flu viruses have much greater environmental resistance (they can survive outside the body for hours), but are not very lethal (comparatively speaking). There is also incubation period. How long does it take from when the target (patient) is infected until they start to show symptoms. A very short incubation period means that the infectious agent can be identified and spread stopped before it starts to spread by those airborne vectors (Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s). A long incubation period means that your vectors from Kenya could be in New York before they start to show symptoms. Kind of hard to stop the spread of something like that.

An ideal "killer' virus would be highly transmissive (environmentally resistant and airborne), highly virulent (kills most of who catch it), and would have a long incubation period (makes it hard to stop in time). If such viruses were easy to design, they would have evolved naturally from time to time and wiped out whatever species they happened to infect. Maybe some of the mass extinctions are due to such viruses appearing from time to time. Maybe the various pre-columbian civilizations died out due to this sort of thing.

However, I maintian that it is very difficult to design such viruses, fortunately.

I do think that garage biology will lead to an effective cure for aging within the next 50 years.

How about your common immortality flu virus?

Antinomy said at April 20, 2005 5:13 PM:

If genetic engineering becomes that easy, my imagination fails me on how human life will survive. Surely there will be enough maniacs on the loose that there will be regular attempts to end it all. Will our only hope be surveillance of everyone 100% of the time?

What Kurt describes has been a waking nightmare of mine. I hope he is right about its difficulty.

Randall Parker said at April 20, 2005 5:21 PM:

Kurt, Antimony,

I think it is easier to develop a virus to wipe out another species than to do so for humans. Remember, humans can be told that a killer virus is on the loose and can take many steps to isolate themselves and reduce the rate of transmission. This is especially the case for humans in the most industrialized societies. By contrast, imagine a long incubating and deadly virus introduced into sea gulls. They travel large distances. They can not all be isolated from each other. They can't be reasoned with. We'd have a harder time saving them than we would ourselves.

jmgordon said at April 20, 2005 6:40 PM:

My take on this - which I've mentioned before on a previous topic- is that as the tools to design genetic weapons get cheaper and faster the tools to design defenses will also get cheaper and faster: sample organism, decode DNA, use desktop supercomputer to design countermeasure (drug?, antibody?, virus?). This will lead to a kind of arms race with the genetic weapons and genetic countermeasures playing leapfrog.

In fact, it just occurred to me that this might make a good thesis topic: Computationally Enabled Genetic Engineering Arms Races.


Randall Parker said at April 20, 2005 6:47 PM:


But I fail to see how tools advances are going to restore habitats changed by genetically engineered organisms.

A genetic engineering arms race will tend to be between groups introducing competing organisms. If many groups are out there introducing genetically engineered birds, rodents, worms, insects, and the like then what can "defenders" do in response? Their response has to be to devise means to kill off only non-wild type organisms. So they have to find and check as many organisms as possible and check for unexpected sequences. Then they have to try to devise methods of killing these organisms. But think about how hard that will be. The world is vast. The number of places to deliver counter agents is enormous.

toot said at April 20, 2005 7:30 PM:

Evolutionary biologists often assume that the process of evolution works quickly enough to accommodate changes that an altered environment might demand. The implication of this, it seems to me, is that if there were a genetic modification to rats that would lead to the kinds of super rats of the kind you suggest, the natural evolutionary process would have found it already. Now the assumed rapidity of evolution may not be entirely true, but I suspect it will not really be that easy to improve on nature, in the sense of making a rat having greater fitness.

Many of the kinds of risks that you envision, such as super mean Rottweillers or tame cougars, would be organisms that satisfy some (perverse) desire on the part of a genetic hobbyist, but that would not necessarily be successful in nature. Just as there have been all manner of hot house plants that have resulted from conventional cross-breeding, the future may hold all sorts of "hot house" fauna, as well, but I would not worry that these might take over the world.

Perhaps the best course for a truly malicious person to pursue would be to attempt some kind of minor modification to an already thriving species such that it becomes harmful to humans. For example, one might imagine modifying the common dandelion such that it produces severe allergic reactions in most people. I suspect if such were accomplished and the plants became widely distributed, people's reactions would be not only allergic, but also such as to assure that the common dandelion becomes a good deal less common.

michael vassar said at April 20, 2005 7:40 PM:

The basic limitation to this is that it is likely to be VERY hard to figure out what adaptation would be selectively favored in most species, especially species that have had a long time to adapt to their current environments. Most selectively preferred changes are likely to be simple and subtle. Who cares if ecosystems end up being filled with new species that are almost identicle to the old species?

Randall Parker said at April 20, 2005 8:01 PM:


But look at the invader species. They indicate there is a huge difference in adaptability of species across the planet.

Also, look at the genetic engineering of crop plants where a gene from one plant (that may not even be a crop plant) is moved to another plant to give it some advantage against insects, drought, etc. Obviously genes exist in some species that would be advantageous for other species.

I picture species as existing on an uneven field where the lower regions are areas of greater adaptability and the higher regions areas of lesser adaptability. Some organisms can't get enough mutations in a short enough period to move from one low region to another even lower region. So then when their region or niche shrinks and disappears they go extinct.

But genetic engineering tools will allow engineers or hobbyists to basically grab together a lot of separate adaptations which evolved in different species to create more capable species.

There is another way that genetic engineers will be able to enhance adaptability: Get rid of all pure harmful mutations. Lots exist because they are generated faster than they can be selected away. For humans I've read estimates for purely harmful mutations in the range of 300 to 500 mutations.

Also, the accumulation of purely harmful mutations holds back in the growth of genome size. The bigger the genome gets the harder for the purely harmful mutations to get selected out. But genetically engineered organisms could have more functionality placed in their genomes and then could start out with few if any harmfuls. They'd accumulate harmful mutations eventually but perhaps not before overrunning an ecological niche.

toot said at April 20, 2005 9:09 PM:

Invasive species should be looked upon as special cases in which a isolation has allowed a disequilibrium to arise that is partially reduced by the invading species. Consider New Zealand, which is troubled by such invasive species as deer and rabbits. The reason that these become problems is that New Zealand has no natural predators, such as wolves. Of course, there is no desire to bring the situation into balance because of the threat that wolves would pose to the sheep. So instead the Kiwis attempt to keep the situation under control by hiring "deer stalkers", i.e., men whose job it is to kill every deer that comes into their assigned territory. The point is that the invasiveness of the deer says nothing about the fitness of deer globally; it comes about because the isolation of some region allows a local disequilibrium.

I am not claiming that nature will have a counter to every threat that arises. As you point out, species do go extinct, often because of pressures imposed by another species, e.g., the passenger pigeon in America, the dodo on Mauritius Island, and the moa in New Zealand. But I question whether it will be so easy to "plug and play" with genes that a hobbyist, or even a dedicated researcher, will be able to create a competitive new species.

Concerns about genes escaping from genetically modified crops arise more from a view that nature should be left to evolve on its own, free from the deliberate actions of men for his commercial purposes. Thus, these concerns are much like those of an archivist who strives to keep a document collection free of forgeries. I question that there is a threat to life on earth posed by such genetic escape, but rather just one of confusion in the evolutionary record that we are attempting to decipher.

Your comments about ridding the genome of harmful genes raises the question, what is a harmful gene? To make clear what I am asking here, let's be careful to distinguish between gene and allele. Genes encode proteins. Presumably, a harmful gene would encode a harmful protein. If such a thing arises, it will be quickly purged from the genome; it would be a dominant deleterious mutation. More frequent are cases of harmful alleles, which are variations in the sequence of a normally beneficial gene that make it less beneficial. There are many genes that have been inactivated in the genome (human and others) by such mutations. Now if by getting rid of harmful genes you mean to replace alleles that make a gene ineffectual by one that makes it active, you have to be pretty careful. Some of these ineffectual alleles have been like that for a long time and the genome has established a new balance that the presence of a reactivated gene would upset. An example of this is the need in females to close down one of the X chromosomes because the balance of gene expression must be such as to accommodate males with their single X chromosome. Nor would you want to simply purge the genome of all inactive genes, because it is believed that these are the material from which new, potentially beneficial genes arise. To get a valuable new gene, you have to mutate something, and you can't go mutating something that you are already dependent upon. Thus, the new gene must come from a mutation of something that hitherto has had no value. I am talking about natural evolutionary processes here, of course, not splicing in new genes.

Randall Parker said at April 20, 2005 9:12 PM:


Also, while I do not post much on environmental research I do read about it. The impression I get from that reading is that zoologists and botanists and marine biologists are busy making lots of progress understanding how changes in habitat cause populations to go up and down. Scientists are elucidating how a number of phenotypes provide adaptive advantage in some environments and not others. So the biologists are going to map out lots of information needed for would-be genetic engineers.

I figure there are many adaptations that have developed in some species but not others. Biologists are going to find all those unique adaptations and proudly explain them in research reports. Then even if most people who are trying to combine adaptations in wasy that do not exist naturally do not know what they are doing it won't matter. Lots of combinations will be tried. Some ignorant fools will get lucky. Some scientists will eagerly explain their own ideas on which adaptations could be combined for useful reasons such as better crops or better pets or longer lasting organs for organ replacement.

spiny widgmo said at April 20, 2005 9:34 PM:

Just a few thoughts.
/ramble on/

1) Most backyard mechanics may be able to build a weekend racer, however, rarely do their creations display durability and robustness when used on the roads daily. The same can be said for amateur software. Something novel and specific is well within the reach of a weekend hobbist, however writing robust bullet proof code is typically beyond such endeavors. I'd bet creating a high level organism will be a large systems engineering task, even with supercomputers in 2050 and applicable software (or weak AIs, I'm assuming strong AI introduces a whole new world). Because of this I'd suspect that the greatest damage would be possible at the bacterial, viral, protozoan & plankton level. Just generate lots of design and select one with properties you like. This can be done without even using genetic engineering. I'll leave as an exercise for the reader to envision the damage that is possible with selective breeding of pathogens. Remember, bacteria share DNA tricks with each other, so releasing a strain of bacteria with a particular adapative advantage can work its way into other species of bacteria.
More complex animals will require some form of simulation from gene to physiology and anatomy. The time to build and test and organism is too high otherwise. I think the chances of getting lucky with an invasive & displacing design are slim.

2) Unintended consequences can play havoc with the best laid plans. I doubt there will be good simulations of the natural ecosystems for some would be biobucaneer to evaluate their design against. Forced to use intuition in a complex environment, Murphy's law will win. If someone has the goal of displacing a 'natural' organism to gain fame, I'd be inclined to think they will fail in most cases. The novel aspect of the displacing organism will typically have a cost or a weakness and be out of balance with the surrounding econology. If, for fame, you add trout that glow to the streams, chances are that the trout will be eaten preferrentially by the predators. If you make rats more aggressive, they will likely displace the native rats at first, but trigger a population crash by overbreeding. There are more ways to fail than to succeed and mother nature has tried a lot of ways that don't work.

3) I'd fear organized groups with a specific target and limited designs. Imagine a weed that is only viable for a limited environment like the Midwest in the summer. Design a weed that is immune to herbicides and produces a herbicide particularly effective on corn. In a greenhouse generate a 'seed' crop. Distribute seeds via car rides through the grain basket. No permanent damage, but one heck of a short term impact. Winter or a generational switch kills the plants. Such a plan does not require an organism that is viable long term in an eco system or that is particularly robust in its environment. Just a design good for one season.

4) I'd suspect that we will archive all known biological species within 45 years. I'd expect we will have a library with enough variation to ressurect a specicies with enough variation to be viable. I'd also suspect that, after the first known incident of genetic tampering (?), there will be a some sort of continuous monitoring on all species from bacteria to higher order animals.

5) I'd also suspect that we will have genetic tampering as a form of protest against the Luddites who will do everything in their power to prevent access to this capabilty in anyone's garage. Look at Europe's precautionary principle in effect today. I would not be surprised to see a decade of attempts by governments to suppress access to tools and software useful for this type or work. I'd expect certification or licensing and inspection would be required to own and operate this equipment. However, I think this will be an ill fated attempt at control. The materials will be too small and the information readily available.

6) Let not forget recreational drugs! Why bother creating a critter for entertainment and release it into the wild when you can create a bacteria, yeast, or plankton that create you favorite recreational drug as a byproduct of living. Today alcohol, tomorrow THC and LSD. There is a vision, drop a few gains of 'stuff' into a cup of water, leave in the sun and in a few days and viola! weekend entertainment. Try supressing that once an enterprising grad student builds the first prototypes. How about engineering intestinal flora for to generate your drug of choice?

7) How about engineering plankton and bacteria to generate hormones, carcinogens, or toxins. Create a bacteria that converts sewage into dioxin (attaching the chlorine atoms are tough, but given some energy and creativity...)! Intestinal flora that secrete hormones, hallucigenics or carcinogens. Oh, the possibilities...

The worst case scenarios I can imagine don't require genetic engineering of large scale organisms. God's simplest creatures have the greatest potential to wreak havoc and are potentially the easiest to design and deploy. Unfortunately, this capability will probably hit at the garage level a lot sooner than 45 years. Fortunately, I suspect that the ability of these organisms to retain their mischief making capability and survive in the wild will be limited by the waste of energy associated with being mischievious. However, for particularly nasty organisms, the mess created can remain after the area has been sterilized.


1) Assume bacteria, plankton, yeast, mold etc are the first target of mischief. Lines of defence:
a) Constant monitoring of air, water, sewage and food for unknown sequence of DNA or known DNA sequences with ill consequences.
b) Constant analysis of novel DNA sequences for possible impact.
c) Consider monitors on hulls of aircraft and boats.
d) Consider monitors on any large air handling equipment or water handling equipment (i.e power plants and large structures).
e) Include geographic information for a chance to identify source of infection and spread.

2) Best defence is a strong offense.
a) Develop prior to any outbreak a suite of viri, phages, etc that can be used to target an identified bacteria, etc.
b) Develop manufacturing capability to produce these countermeasures in bulk on short notice.
c) Insure that the countermeasures do not adversely impact the environment and people. Test before hand to insure that the cure is not worse than the disease.
d) Develop protocols to disable transmission vectors that spread the pathogens.

3) If the offense fails, retreat into a defense.
a) Design and improve our infrastructure (buildings, water, distribution) etc with passive and active pathogen containment in mind.
b) Move the knowledge forward as fast a possible so we have some chance that the balance falls in favor of defense versus offense: just in time antibiotics design and manufacture, just in time phage design and manufacture, physiological simulators.....

4) Prevent this from being used as an excuse to move into a police state because we fear someone's suicidal teen might decide to unleash one of the horsemen of the apocalypse after his girlfriend dumps him.

5) Preserve the rights of researchers to explore this. If serious researchers don't explore this some else will!

6) Pre-emptively write laws to address genetic mischief and harshly punish anyone who crosses the line. Do NOT repeat the treatment of early hackers and virus writers. Insure there are not fame or monetary rewards for engaging in this behavior. Amateurs can quickly become dangerous.

7) Insure there are strong property rights for biological designs, this will raise scrutiny and give private enterprise an incentive to develop monitoring and compliance technologies just to snare patent and licensing cheats!

8) Encourage amateur involvement in monitoring and benign genetic activities. How about a benign way to insert inert DNA messages into bacteria like messages in a bottle. Release into the wild. Monitor to see yours and other's messages....

9) Accept that someone may be able to destroy a local ecosystem. (I doubt anyone could significantly damage the whole ecosystem) Develop the theory and practice required to sanitize and regenerate an ecosystem from scratch (sunlight, dirt, water and DNA). Develop the models needed to understand these types of system with an engineering rather than scientific focus. Reclamation of wetlands and forests are examples of this. This could just occur on a much larger scale if someone gets lucky.

/ramble off/

Randall Parker said at April 20, 2005 9:43 PM:


No, "disequilibrium" isn't the problem with isolated populations. They simply are not adapted to new competitors. Some plants out compete when they enter an isolated habitat because they release toxins that retard the growth of native plants that have never met a plant that made that toxin. They lack the resistance. Or look at the pathogens Columbus brought to the New World that wiped out most of the New World populations. Did those pathogens move into an environment in "disequilibrium"? No. The problem was that the New Worlders didn't have genotypes that gave them resistance to those pathogens. Read up on ants in Hawaii for example. Bird species have been driven extinct probably because ants wiped out the species they used as food sources.

No, harmful mutants are not quickly selected out. Lots of harmful mutants only mildly decrease reproductive fitness. So they take dozens or hundreds of generations to be weeded out. Imagine a mutation decreases reproductive fitness by only 1%. Does a person who has only 99% of the reproductive fitness of another person totally fail to reproduce? Occasionally, but far more often they reproduce just as much.

As the harmfuls are selected out meanwhile new ones pop up. The error rate for DNA polymerase is too high for it to be otherwise. Ditto for other sources of error.

michael vassar said at April 21, 2005 5:05 AM:

But Randall, you aren't going to get new harmful species just by eliminating harmful mutations. What you will get is somewhat more robust individuals from old species. This could cause some trouble, but would have little long term ecological impact.
OTOH, doing this in humans might be significant. If I had data relating selective fitness of peasent farmers to IQ, or even data on the relative fitness of IQs of 90, 100, and 110 in the Chinese countryside I might be able to make some strong predictions here. I'll have to do some math to improve my understanding of genetic equilibria involving multiple traits to determine how strong.

Michael Mealling said at April 21, 2005 7:24 AM:

I think a key part of the nightmare scenario is the assumption that all human life is still sequestered on the surface of this planet. With recent calculations of asteroidal impacts and other extinction timelines, the impetus to move human life off planet is growing large enough that, I think, by the time "garage genetic engineering" appears in 50 plus years you will also see significant populations living off world (and possibly engineering themselves to better match that world).

There is also the case where some dangerous behaviors likely to induce someone to produce such a virus can easily move to a more virtual realm. There is documented evidence that allowing adolescents to work out antisocial behaviors in video games reduces those anitosocial behaviors in meat space. Who knows, in 50 years the antisocial element might not even consider fiddling with "meat space" interesting enough to warrant the attention. Case in point: most script kiddies who write computer viruses are fairly non-violent and could care less about committing a crime in the real world because they rarely actually exist in it.

Randall Parker said at April 21, 2005 9:53 AM:

Michael Vassar,

But the ability to eliminate harmful mutants in, say, a mice strain would boost reproductive fitness. Then the hobbyist genetic engineer could add other characteristics that have little impact on reproductive fitness but which could be problematic for the rest of us.

But even just boosting the reproductive fitness of a species could be problematic. For example, if a species is a predator and its reproductive fitness was boosted then whatever it preyed on would decline in number. Or imagine an invasive weed that was made more able to invade tomato fields or corn fields.

Or how about a strain of mosquito that lives in the United States which has the malaria genome built right into it. Boost its reproductive fitness and it would outcompete other mosquito strains. It would also produce malaria pathogens.

Ken said at April 21, 2005 11:02 AM:

If it became possible for individuals to eliminate species, it would have long-since been possible for the good guys to engineer new species that take over whatever vital function the old one was serving.

Not to mention engineering crops that exhibit zero dependence on any wild species or, really, any aspect of the natural environment other than a decent temperature and the availability of nitrogen, oxygen, and CO2. And even those might be negotiable. Thus, anything pranksters did would utterly fail to imperil humanity, since its food supply would no longer be dependent on the continued existence of any wild species. Of course a lot of people think wild species are worth preserving for their own sake above all other considerations, but hopefully there aren't enough of them to push through bans on this technology.

Directly attacking crops or pets or humans themselves? Those would be far more closely watched, and engineered protection of those particular organisms would be easier than protecting the ecosystem as a whole. Crops would be aggressively engineered to have maximum fitness at any rate - good luck to vandals trying to make something that will outcompete them in their own environment.

As for escaping the planet, this technology would make it much easier. You could construct not only "animals", but create and trade genetic "blueprints" for just about anything you wanted, and it would grow itself into being. You want a spaceship - you download a blueprint for it off the internet, and the FAA will have a hell of a time stopping you, especially if you don't plan on coming back. Hell, teenagers might grow one in their basement and take off to the final frontier without their parents' permission - and start their own colonies where the age of majority is 13. (Of course most of them would come home with their tails between their legs when the pioneer lifestyle turned out to be too much like work, even if it's mostly mental work thanks to the super-duper genetic engineering gizmos, but some would remain and breed. What would become of them in a couple hundred years? Low out-of-wedlock birthrates and extremely low rates of adolescent "acting-out" would be my prediction)

Any kind of "autofactory" technology would make today's restrictions on, well, just about everything much harder to enforce. You need a new drug? Grow something that makes it, and the FDA can't say jack about it, and you'll be golden unless you're unlucky enough to be nabbed by the local drug warriors . How about a new car? If you download one, you can edit out the mandatory "safety" device that makes the front seat more dangerous to your children. A lot of these silly restrictions depend on the fact that mass production is so much cheaper than the alternatives that the Feds can lean on the big, easy-to-notice suppliers and cut off everyone's supply of unapproved stuff - when that's no longer true, it'll be a whole new world.

David Gobel said at April 21, 2005 4:06 PM:

My favorite SciFi movie is Forbidden Planet. I saw it from the back seat of a two tone '55 Ford at a drive in (no - my parents were in the front seat). Robbie scared the living bizness out of me...later when I saw it as a teen ager, the phrase "Monsters from the Id" kinda struck me as interesting. So Randall, turns out that we are the Krell - will we grow up in time?

What I think will happen is that all organized religious teaching will be banned by secular states in desperation. It won't work. Someone will raid the game.

Randall Parker said at April 21, 2005 5:15 PM:

Dave Gobel,

The problem with the growing up part is that teenagers will be able to do genetic engineering. They are definitely not grown up.

Imagine some teen inserting genes into a rat that causes the rat to have the teen's initials on the rat's belly. Imagine some teen deciding it would be need to make purple rats or rats that glow in the dark when you briefly shine light on them.

I expect people will change all sorts of species for kicks and for fame. They might need to hide behind some pseudonym in order to escape the long arm of the law. But they will look for ways to make their pseudonyms famous.

I also expect some people to violate genetic engineering laws with full knowledge they will be caught. Look at the assassins who kill famous people. I am thinking of Mark David Chapman and the guy who tried to kill Reagan. John Hinckley? Someome determined to make a name for himself could do some terrible things with genetic engineering.

On the bright side the mentally ill assassin or genetic engineer might become fairly rare due to advances in medical treatments for cognitive dysfunction. On the other hand, some people might start using biotech manipulations of their brains to make themselves weirder on purpose.

David said at April 21, 2005 5:45 PM:

hmmm...anyone of legal age can purchase the equivalent of an sniper cannon with perfect accuracy for well over a mile - today for a few thousand dollars. But they don't. Any decent deer rifle can cause havoc such as the DC sniper case of recent memory. But that didn't spawn copy cats. Why doesn't it happen more? If wackos don't do this stuff now in huge numbers, why will they do it then?

Is it possible to irrevocably encode unique identifiers of creators/sources of (nasty) gene coding? retribution is a powerful deterrent, and the temptation is all the greater if one can feel anonymous. take that away, and we might have something.

Randall Parker said at April 21, 2005 6:05 PM:


There are plenty of boys who will torture animals to death who wouldn't kill a human. You have to keep in mind that lots of people won't see release of a genetically engineered bird or rodent as a big deal. Look at all the people who bring animals in from other countries illegally. Florida gets all sorts of things growing in its canals and rivers or in trees because people dumped their aquarium or decided they didn't want to keep a strange bird anymore. Sometimes they release pairs and the pairs start reproducing.

Well, imagine someone genetically engineering an animal as a pet who then abandons the pet. Millions of dogs are abandoned every year.

What I'm predicting is not a big jump from what people already do with plants and animals. The only difference is the genetic engineering part.

simon said at April 21, 2005 6:55 PM:

Spiny, great ideas ... You did a nice job building on the counter measures question.

It appears that the majority of the respondents are stuck on the dooms day scenarios.

We currently have computer virus's as the best examplar of a technology employed by citizens to attack others for nothing more than a laugh.

It is interesting to note that we are all most afraid of a "lone wolf" rather than a government causing the disaster. HOw the world has changed.

The fact that the world did pause at the Pope's death is a positive sign not a negative one. It suggests that a chunk of humanity still holds solidarity with values greater than themselves (ie they can relate to someone living a "good" life).

Randall Parker said at April 21, 2005 7:41 PM:


I didn't respond to Spiny because his post was so long and I'd already addressed some points before he made them. However, let me address some of his points:

Spiny says:

I'd bet creating a high level organism will be a large systems engineering task, even with supercomputers in 2050 and applicable software (or weak AIs, I'm assuming strong AI introduces a whole new world). Because of this I'd suspect that the greatest damage would be possible at the bacterial, viral, protozoan & plankton level.

But Spiny, you are missing something obvious: New species or subspecies will not have to be constructed from scratch. People will be able to put genes into existing species from other species and turn the knobs up and down on existing genes (i.e. change the regulatory mechanisms for when genes are turned on and off). This will not be that hard. Scientists of today are already transplanting genes across species and modifying regulatory regions and producing viable life forms.

I do not know if I ever posted on this but research coming out of dog genetics suggests that dogs can be rapidly selected for to come in so many shapes because repeating regions in dog genes, when made longer or shorter, cause various dog physical features to become larger or smaller. Well, imagine taking control of the same sorts of genetic regions in mountain lions, cougars, black bears, brown bears, and dozens of other species. Lots of new shapes will be generated that will be viable.

Then Spiny brings up the fact that most will fail:

Unintended consequences can play havoc with the best laid plans. I doubt there will be good simulations of the natural ecosystems for some would be biobucaneer to evaluate their design against. Forced to use intuition in a complex environment, Murphy's law will win. If someone has the goal of displacing a 'natural' organism to gain fame, I'd be inclined to think they will fail in most cases.

As I've already stated, even if most efforts fail this is not a reason for complacency. Most genetic engineering amateurs will produce bad designs. But if enough people try to generate designs some will work. Suppose in the year 2050 only 100,000 people per year illegally tinker with DNA of other species. Suppose only one tenth of one percent of them produce something viable. Well, that translates into 100 new viable types of critters being introduced per year.

Plus, inevitably some young savants who are extremely gifted will toil away in obscurity and produce bioengineering masterpieces. These savants may be completely normal by many measures. But they could easily just disappear with the majority about whether it is ethical to develop and introduce new species into the world.

Patrick said at April 21, 2005 9:33 PM:

I think we are all being too sensible here. And assuming that something has to actually be bad to have bad effects. We forget that other people can be stupid and panic striken over something that has no real effects.

Let me put it this way. A geneticly engineered dandylion is released. Will it spread? Will it take over? Will the genetically engineered pollen cause mass allergic reactions? It doesn't matter! Because the general public will think it has, and so hospitals will be flooded with psychosomatic hayfever cases, with people who worry themselves into ulcers and heart attacks. People will try to erradicate every small flower they see. Idiots will set fires and cause mass destruction to burn out a patch of innocent wildgrass....

And that's in the case of a civilized country. Now imagine some genetic engineer looses her husband in a terrorist attack blamed on Muslims. A strand of pig DNA is spliced into the common cold virus and released. 3 months later she publishes all the information on the internet and proves that everyone who sneezes has pig dna inside them... It doesn't need to affect the real world at all, it just needs to mess with people's heads, and if you choose people whose heads are already messed up...

Swanson said at April 21, 2005 10:07 PM:

Imagine spotting a beautiful girl, stealthily obtaining her genetic material and using it to your advantage, building it (through unspecified processes) into your own personal sex slave of her. When her charm wears thin you kill her and repeat process using another chick's genetic blueprint. [... ...Sounds fun!!.;-)]

Invisible Scientist said at April 22, 2005 4:28 AM:

The practice of utilizing genetically engineered slaves, was the main theme of the movie "Blade Runner" more than 20 years ago, but in that movie, these synthetic slaves finally rebelled and escaped... And one of them finally killed the selfish scientist CEO who designed him. So be very careful if you are inclined to create genetically engineered slaves.

In another science fiction movie, namely the television version of the War of the Worlds around 1993, the aliens clone humans in order to make them untraceable pre-programmed assassins. And this is a scary possibility in the future, many political contract killings will be by cloned or genetically engineered humans who will be untraceable.

But seriously, the best way for amateur genetic engineers to do something useful, is to create food at home. FOOD prices are high, and these prices keep going up because they are manipulated by cartels that actually destroy the extra milk or cheese, or even crops to avoid surpluses that might make it cheap. But if you could grow food at home, for free, then you are one step closer to personal independence from the system.

optimist said at April 22, 2005 5:02 AM:

You guys are only concentrating on the negatives. Think of a whole world populated by Demi Moores and Mariah Careys. Everything else would be worth it then, eh?

M. Simon said at April 22, 2005 5:31 AM:

Think pleasure:

Various drugs.

Engineer a bug that takes sugar and multivitamins and turns it into THC?, heroin?, cocaine?, meth?, viagra?, etc. etc. etc.

DB said at April 22, 2005 6:19 AM:

Nuclear bombs are 50 year old technology and hobbyists aren't tossing around mini-nukes. I think the challenges of DNA engineering will also proove to be more challenging that initally suspected.

Dick Eagleson said at April 22, 2005 7:47 AM:

Four words: giant flying vampire toads.

quasimodo said at April 22, 2005 7:48 AM:

I did not read the whole thread... so sorry if this is redundant...
We have an analog in computer viruses. There was a time when computers were the domain of the technical high priest class. in those days computer viruses were not a problem. now computers experts are a dime a dozen and so are the viruses. some are deadly and some are not. some spread with lightening speed, some do not. there is an over-supply of programmers churning them out and it costs millions to combat them. those fighting against the computer viruses are always a step behind and there is always a lag between discovery and solution. it is easier to isolate a computer than a human. the cost of failure is much higher. this is ugly.

Paul said at April 22, 2005 8:41 AM:

The Computer Virus Analogy:

Since anybody can write or modify a computer virus (Loveletter was a TEXT FILE, for example,) why haven't all computers been rendered useless by the endless plague of threats? Because, despite the vast amount of new mal-code being generated every day, Computer viruses are really pretty easy to detect and defend against. The lagtime between the creation of a computer virus and the creation of a "virus signature" to prevent it, is measured in hours. And computer code travels almost infinitely faster than flesh & blood.

Moreover, many people who COULD write computer viruses do not, because of the likely penalties. The thought of punishment doesn't stop everybody, but it significantly reduces the overall threat.

The introduction of unfamiliar species into an environment can be very dangerous, but I predict: An increase in the number of unfamiliar species will coincide with the increase in rapidity with which such organisms are detected. If DNA-detectors are sniffing the winds for unrecognized life forms, new species will have a very narrow window in which to propogate.

Add to that, the possibility of harsh penalties for individuals letting such organisms loose, and the threat, although very real, becomes manageable.

Right Wing Nutter said at April 22, 2005 8:53 AM:

I suspect DB is correct. However the initial post and the comments that followed remind me that God had us pegged millennia ago.

“But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel-- because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” Genesis 11:5-9, NIV.

Brian Moore said at April 22, 2005 9:28 AM:

"“But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” "

Whose side is this God guy on, anyway? Thankfully, we managed to beat him. We do all speak one language now, and that is why nothing will be impossible for us. Actually, in truth, we all speak many languages now: DNA, C++, physics, money. And just like all things these abilities shall bring great risk balanced by even greater reward.

Fentrow said at April 22, 2005 9:53 AM:

I didn't read the entire piece because of the dense prose. Certainly most people overuse the comma, but no one will ever accuse you of that.

toot said at April 22, 2005 10:10 AM:

From the ideas that appear in many of the posts, it seems that belief in genetic determinism is greater than I had supposed. Genes certainly affect us, but they do not determine how we behave.

I agree with the poster who opined that it would take a major effort to genetically engineer a successful organism, i.e., one able to proliferate in nature. It would take a much greater effort to engineer a successful noxious organism, i.e., one that is harmful to man and is yet able to proliferate. I understand the concern that there will be individuals wanting to play god, who might undertake such an endeavor, but I don't think that their chances of success are great enough to lose a good night's sleep worrying about it.

PacRim Jim said at April 22, 2005 10:42 AM:

People are developing basement nanofactories that will automatically develop millions of random, viable species and them release them into the wild. Call it accelerated evolution. (Well, they might.)

hans said at April 22, 2005 10:44 AM:

The scenario you imagine strikes me as very unlikely. A layman will, first, not be able to cope with thousands of genes with functions that are incomprehensible to non-specialists. A layman will not know. and scientists will not be able to predict if a gene from one species behaves the same in another (they ofter are highly modified). It will be many years before science really even begins to understand what even a fraction of genes actually do in humans. Deliberately modifying the genetics of any species is a further shot in the dark, where to start among thousands of genes, what to change among thousands of base pairs in a given gene, what will be the result? There is a reason drug discovery is so very slow, it's all a great shot in the dark, even concentrating just on human biology. Then actually testing which of millions of possible changes an amateur makes to "improve" an animal (not a species) will just be too laborious. Lastly, perhaps the best genetic improvement programs have been successful because they do not rely on DNA, just on obesrvations of farmers or pet fanciers over very long periods of time.

Doug said at April 22, 2005 11:02 AM:

However exactly these things play out, it's very important to me, as a citizen and resident of the United States, that the U.S. achieve and maintain supremacy in genetic engineering. It's good to be loved, but if one cannot have both love and fear, then it is better to be feared than loved; for others determine whether they love you, but you determine whether they fear you. We ought not shirk the duty to use every prudent means to acquire and keep the biotechnologists for ourselves. If we, out of decency or out of fear of others' opinions, allow genetic engineers to live unwatched and uncontrolled in other countries, we're engaged in cruel pity--the sort of decency that, through our unwillingness to employ harsh measures, causes us to allow much worse things to come to pass. If, as it seems, genetic engineering is so threatening to us, then genetic engineering has to be brought under political control--ours. I propose a division of the earth into Heaven and Hell; I propose that we make it a delight for genetic engineers to work in the United States, and a nightmare for them to live anywhere else. If the rulers of other nations consider our measures unjust, let them petition us to admit their nations as States.

Lono said at April 22, 2005 1:12 PM:

There was a time that I seriously considered trying to modify the Tobacco Mosaic Virus to make it much much more virulent and distribute it to anti-smoking groups across the globe to help release it in the wild.

My point would not have been to try to eliminate the plant, which would likely prove impossible, but to drive up the price so much that millions would seriously consdier quitting smoking.

I feel certain that I would have been able to accomplish this feet over time even if it had required me to work at a specific lab or college to gain access to the necessary equipment and samples.

And thats at the present level of access and technology.

(Granted I am trained in Genetics and Molecular Biology, but this is not a hard thing to accomplish.)

I will really be surprised if some future fanatic doesn't consider themself some kind of hero - creating viruses that destroy tobacco or say marijuana plants - and will not attempt what I only once considered.

And I do not believe this can be compared to access to Nuclear Bomb technology - because it is really just an accident of chemistry and physics that the elements needed to make those bombs are so rare to find on Earth and thus are much more easily controlled.

I hope that any would be mad scientist seriously considers the real dangers that introducing new "synthetic" viruses and species to the world can bring - not only in their current form - but also in a future mutable lines.

This spectre I fear much more than any other technology we are currently playing with.

Brett Bellmore said at April 22, 2005 2:27 PM:

A number of aspects of the genetic code, though currently, so far as we know, universal, are largely arbitrary, such as which DNA codons translate into which amino acids. Theoretically, you could take somebody's DNA sequence, decompile it into a higher level code, recompile it with the arbitrary aspects permuted, and the resulting biology would function just as before... except that it would be totally immune to viral infection, except by viruses specifically designed to function for that permutation. Because viruses use your celular machinery, and that machinery would read the viral genes as giberish.

Now, this would be handy, being immune to viral infection, especially in a world where it was easy to create new viruses, but it does have drawbacks. You want to have a child with somebody, you'd have to go to a clinic, and have your codes recompiled to match. Though perhaps only in a couple of cells, for in vitro fertilization...

I think designer organisms would not be as much trouble as some suggest, because part of what would make the task much easier would be software tools, which could be programed to default to inserting specific vulnerabilities into their products, along with IDing the specific copy of the tools used to produce it. Sure, by using lower level tools you could edit those out, but that immediately reduces dramatically the pool of potential troublemakers.

OTOH, it is fairly realistic to think that, once we've got a greater understanding of genetics, that genetically engineered organisms could outcompete natural ones. Evolution is a hill climbing algorithim, and where evolution can get stuck on the local maximum, human engineers can see the way to higher hills to climb. Like mamalian eyes being stuck with backwards retinas, because there's no way to evolve the mistake away, while a human engineer can immediately see what the problem is.

pablo said at April 22, 2005 2:41 PM:

Since we already have a fairly robust immune system, it shouldn't be too difficult to keep it that way. It isn't at all like the case of Microsoft products that haven't been subject to attack for more than a decade or two. Our immune systems have been in this game for millions of years and have evolved to be fairly effective. I don't think that they'll be all that easy to attack by someone with a knowledge base comparable to a hacker's. It's going to take a lot more serious intent and effort. It also helps that humans are much more diverse than operating systems, so that if you find one little bug, it isn't going to be in all humans, or even necessarily in a majority of humans.

If genetic engineering is going to be that easy and accesible, wouldn't you expect that there would be commercially manufactured 'medicines' that are immune system enhancements, not at all like the disease specific vaccines that we have now. As new 'weaknesses', or potential attack point are discovered, new enhancements would be developed and offered for sale. I think that the level of competition combined with the knowledge base required would quickly weed-out anybody who isn't very serious and very capable. You could compare it with the current state of computer anti-viral efforts, and note that at this point, it appears that the hackers are losing.

If you want to project much further into the future, I suspect that there are many other factors that render the discussion moot. The likelyhood of an intelligence singularity for one.

LankyB said at April 22, 2005 2:50 PM:

As a genetic engineer, I'm not terribly worried about garage genetics. It's true that reagents will get cheaper and better in time and there may be more user-friendly technologies. But people aren't going to have thermal cyclers, sterile hoods, and DNA synthesizers. Even with equipment, molecular biology tends to be difficult. It's not like chemistry. It's way, way harder than making bombs, drugs, or chemical weapons. (3 things you can also make in your garage) It's also way way more expensive. You might be able to afford a green fluorescent rabbit (from GFP, a commonly manufactured gene), but making new mutations is just expensive and unlikely. Double that for virus.

I do agree with the destructive potential, but doomsday prophets should focus on governments and organizations that can pull together a few hundred thousand dollars. Those are a very legitimate concern.

Even then, our shining hope is that anyone attempting a bioweapon would almost certainly get themselves infected. Yeah, that might not stop a terrorist, but read Kurt's first comment on why a single attempt is unlikley to suceed.

c. taylor said at April 22, 2005 2:55 PM:

"anyone of legal age can purchase the equivalent of an sniper cannon with perfect accuracy for well over a mile - today for a few thousand dollars."

David, where can I buy this at? Seriously. That way I could forget about trying to manage my breathing, proper trigger control, hours spent zeroing and tweaking. I think you've been had by the anti-gun nuts. The reason that the top tier 50-cal shooters can get hit targets at 1-mile is because they are shooting at large targets. Bigger than even Michael Moore. And even then it requires the sort of discipline and training that immature thugs don't have in large quantities. Presumably technology will allow the great mass of people to shoot more accurately and at longer distances, just like it'll let hobbyists do genetic engineering. Both of these are just special cases of a general problem. Technological development in a free society empowers individuals to do more powerful things. This includes not only great productivity and great good, but also great destruction. Computer virus writers prove that this is not a purely theoretical exercise. On the other hand, this is not a new problem. I'm sure arson has been around almost since Prometheus. Today a few gallons of gasoline and a couple of blocked fire exits could kill hundreds, yet it very rarely happens. I think half the problem is in education and upbringing (unfortunately not the sort of thing amenable to the centralized solutions fashionable these days) to reduce the threat to a small number of nut-jobs. I don't know what the other half is, but it better not be any variation of "keep power out of the hands of normal people." I would fear an elite with a power monopoly more than I would a fusion reactor in every basement, a genetic engineering kit on the store shelf, and precise super-rifles on sale 10% off.

Randall Parker said at April 22, 2005 3:09 PM:


I assume the eventual (10-20 years) development of microfluidics devices to make genetic engineering cheap, highly automated, and easy.

I also assume a black market in gene therapy delivery mechanisms. It will show up first in sports. Once black market gene therapy can boost musculature or lungs or hearts in humans will these purveyors stop there?

Are my assumptions unreasonable? If so, why?

Varenius said at April 22, 2005 4:06 PM:


The only chance I see of this NOT happening, at maybe a 0.00001 % chance, is if we wake up as a species and abandon mystical delusional behaviors.

David Gobel:

What I think will happen is that all organized religious teaching will be banned by secular states in desperation.

Do you guys really think that religion would be the main motive behind this sort of thing? Yes, of course religious extremism is part of the threat, but there are all manner of other ideologies and simple personal quirks that will lead to it as well. Do any of you in the sciences, for example, really find it so hard to imagine scientists -- whether immature or not -- who would do this sort of thing just out of curiosity, or simply because it can be done? We need to think much more broadly to get a handle on this.

David Gobel's comment, though, does hint at what many unfortunately become the way that the cornucopia of extremely dangerous technologies coming down the pike is dealt with: "benevolent" totalitarianism. A thoroughly surveillant society in which everyone is watched thoroughly and any showing potentially threatening "deviant" behaviors are rehabilitated -- or simply killed off -- may be seen as the only sure response. In other words, if freedom becomes too dangerous, freedom will go. And political pieties aside, how many would really choose otherwise?

Ymarsakar said at April 22, 2005 5:40 PM:

Laws don't stop nations from getting nukes, technical difficulties and the United States stops them.

So long as the United States or a comparable power is around to police and moderate the worlwide effect of high technology, the worst excessess of technology can be avoided.

Viruses can be detected and defeated, to defeat genetically engineered species in the same way as viruses you would have to go back into their original genome and introduce strains that resist manipulation. This is both unlikely as well as unpredictable, therefore genetic engineering is not like viruses, neither in its countermeasures nor in its implication.

Everyone has a personal computer, viruses are not the purpose of a computer or the internet. The internet is the ultimate expression of technology that is not regulated, yet has not yet had extremely negative consequences. The relm of genetic engineering requires a lab, it requires scientific environments that do not pollute genetic strains. Just as using the internet to perpetuate a crime is illegal in the particular countries, so will using genetic engineering be a crime if used against humans. And the organizations like PETA will obviously moderate genetic engineering.

Brett Bellmore said at April 22, 2005 6:00 PM:

Randall is right, micro-fluidics, among other technologies, will make gene synthysis incredibly cheap. And once somebody develops a micro-organism that "prints out" genes based on coded light signals, (A quite feasible goal, IMO.) a gene synthesizer will be as simple as a petri dish and a computer driven bi-color LED. Put all the complexity in something that reproduces itself.

And I'd be suprised if black market gene therapies take even ten years to show up. That viral enhancement of IGF in muscle tissue looks like it would be both easy to manufacture, and have a VERY wide market; Who wants their muscles to atrophy as they get old? Forget athletes, it's the aging who would buy THAT. I'm betting you could already get THAT treatment, if you had the money, and knew who to ask...

Will Brown said at April 22, 2005 6:09 PM:

Being neither a professional geneticist nor especially well-read on the subject, still I wish to offer a couple observations.

First is that Randall Parker's concerns about man-made species mutation seem overblown to me. The ability to create a single specimen of a super-rat (or dog, etc) seems a likely possibility, but the question then becomes how transmissable are those mutatiuons to another animal not genetically mutated itself? The likelyhood that an individual (or small group, which is what we seem to be confining discussion to here) would have the material resources to create a viable self-sustaining genepool seems vanishingly unlikely to me. Thus any single creation that could successfully crossbreed with the pre-mutation population would have it's mutations generationally attenuate back to the norm.

Which leads neatly to my second point; the examples Randall Parker cites of species extinction resulting from the artifcial introduction of another species all involve species that are themselves viable and self-sustaining and that have no competition/predators in the new environment. If the environment in which a designer-rat is introduced has no rat population then I don't see the difference between that and the current circumstance. The cure here is to improve the tools we already have for dealing with this problem. If it has an existing population with which it can interbreed then my previous objection would apply, I think.

I think it more likely that should home-brew genetics become the possibility stipulated here then truely bizarre creations seem to be near-certain, but I don't think those individual examples would be likely to lead to general species mutation unless that is undertaken as an organized effort by a large group or government sponsored project.
Any such effort would not be secret (by definition - government classified is another matter) and thus would be pre-emptable if such were thought necessary.

No offence to Mr. Parker, he raised specific concerns that I thought warranted serious response that I didn't see being made by others.

Randall Parker said at April 22, 2005 6:26 PM:

Will Brown,

The problem of preventing cross-breeding between wild type and genetically enhanced rats will be easy to solve in a couple of decades. Cross-breeding can be avoided by changing the chemical signalling system which the rats use to recognize each other as potential sexual partners. The genetically engineered rats could be coded to recognise and secrete different kinds of pheromones and otherwise tinkered with to find their own kind attractive and the wild type unattractive.

Throw up some other problems and I'll suggest other engineering approaches for how to solve those problems.

Lia said at April 22, 2005 10:44 PM:

I also think the doomsday scenarios are exaggerated. Any comparison of genetic engineering to automobile or computer engineering is limited. The creations of nature are much more complex and require quite a lot more study than anything generated by man. Computer hackers create havoc with no more equipment than what we all have sitting on our desks, but development of things like nuclear reactors and biological organisms require equipment that is or can be regulated if necessary. Even assuming that speculations about microfluidics and affordability of reagents are correct, one would still have to purchase a type of equipment enabled to do more than passive analysis. Unlikely this could be easily purchased from "Bio-Dell." [Brief pause to expunge spontaneous image of how the TV ad for that company would go.]

The threat to humans and the overall ecosystem from microorganisms is far greater than any threat from higher level species due to rapidity of dissemination and reproduction. I think the greatest threat in the near to intermediate term is a fanatic, acting independently but on the basis of ideology, or given support by an international terror organization-- does not require a government or much more investment than college tuition. This individual could enter any western university as a biology major, acquire the necessary background, work in one of the university's research laboratories, and use their equipment. This possibility was obvious to any of us with biology background (I should think) during the anthrax scare. Just as terrorists used our own airplanes on 9/11, they can use our universities with malevolent intent. If the government/society sees the need, however, we could certainly track and identify people working in certain bio labs just as we could keep lists of people going to flight school.

Having said microbes are the greater threat, I will point out that I have heard people [informed, but not biologists] in other countries claim that engineered plants have escaped into the wild where they outcompete the wild type. The danger is that this creates a monoculture--eliminates the natural variation which is the foundation of adaptation. The engineered plants are designed to do a few things well: resist disease, stay fresh for longer periods (to get them to market), but inevitably have other defects; for example, less resistance to drought, or salt, or some bug the geneticists didn't know about. If the environment changes, the entire monoculture could die out, and if this is a food plant, it will obviously negatively impact the people who depend on it. However, it takes more work to get a gene stably and replicably into a complex multicellular organism than into a microbe.

mrsizer said at April 23, 2005 8:45 AM:

If anyone makes it this far...

The one point missed in the computer virus analogy: There aren't that many people doing original virus writing work. There are few who create it and a LOT who use it: The script kiddies. They are no less annoying for being copy-cats.

Even if doing the original work of figuring out what to change - for whatever characteristic is of interest - is difficult, it will be disseminated quickly and used by those who have no hope of figuring it out for themselves.

toot said at April 23, 2005 9:22 AM:


In your last paragraph you seem to be making two opposing claims regarding the hypothesized engineered plants. The first is that they escape and out compete the wild type, thereby creating a monoculture. The second is that they have some Achilles heel that makes them vulnerable to some environmental change, such as drought. I take it that you assume that the time required to establish a monoculture is short compared to the time scale of environmental fluctuations, such as weather. I think you should look more critically at that assumption.

kayakdriver said at April 23, 2005 9:31 AM:

I think that the model might be overly presumptive. . .

The proposed model of garage bioengineering script kiddies
relies too much on fear, uncertainty and doubt in the
behavior of the general population.

I think that firearms and gun control policy might
be a good analogy to garage bioengineering.

One statistic floating around the internet presumedly
from the former BATF is that there is almost a 1:1 ratio
of privately owned firearms in the USA.

We do have random outbreaks of violence that
utilize firearms in the US and around the world.
The incidence rate is nowhere close to what it
could be if the same model for acting
on capability and possibility that is presented in
the thesis of the article here were to apply to that

More people are willing to lie than to murder. That
is why hackers seem more likely to act on capability
than general populations of armed citizens. The results
of a single effective hacker can reverberate throughout
the internet much quicker than a biological system
can communicate infection & change.

I think that the future of biocrime will be more like
that of random violence, school shootings, etc. A
huge, centralized outbreak of catastrophic proportions
that will be seen as sad. E.g. while nobody could
replace the existing stand of California Redwoods in
our lifetime, the consequences of an outbreak in no
way would make the California Redwood species extinct. . .
we would just have to ameliorate the contaminant,
replant the species and encourage nurturing of the species
by current and future generations. I would expect the attempt
to find and punish the culprit to discourage the
behavior in society as well. Perhaps bioengineer a few
extra orifices. :)

Other said at April 23, 2005 9:13 PM:

1) Higher order life forms with larger DNA bases will be both harder to (de)code and harder to breed (you really need an elephant on hand to gestate an elephant-modification ... ditto for whales, etc) ...

BUT ... bacteria will be the first garage-shoped life-forms ... even before the far simpler viruses ... mostly because they are asexually replicators and do not need a host animal, just a petri dish

2) Consider the exponential climb of computation genetics and proteinology ... starting only a few years ago and we keep decoding things faster than we expect or predict

Computational biology accelerates at or above the rate of moore's law (doubling every 18 months at half the cost) because unlike computational power, biology is essentially knowledge and is cumulative ... and the number of computers being added to the computational base of biology is increasing and their power goes up at 2/18-mo ... the net effect is really on the accumulation-rate of addition

3) Controlling the equipment needed to do garage biology CANNOT happen: you are forgetting the other revolution on our doorstep ... 3D printing at home, AKA "rapid prototyping" ... raw plastic, certain raw metals etc and you can print a WORKING cellphone with display, battery, keypad, etc. for more complex stuff, you can print 95% of it and but the microchips or specialized components.

4) To the argument that damage is likely to be localized to just the specific ecosystem ... the ocean is a VERY large ecosystem, as are the Amazon rainforests. ... a bacteria to do X that just happens to unintentionally kill Y in the ocean could have vast consequences.

5) Regarding the terrorism threat ... the terrorists won't need to bother ... governments will do that job better
Bluntly, some optimists forget that a) evil exists b) not all cultures are equal or nice c) not everyone means well towards everyone else d) in the age of 3D printing, computational biology, and custom-virus medicine, you get:

~2008: Tehran University Medical Center acquires a virus-printing computer for cancer research and treatment.
~2010: a mysterious virus rages through Israel and the USA killing only people with the specific DNA for a recessive genetic-disease that strikes only those of Jewish descent (there are several of these known now, just as there are codable genetic traits for EVERY ethnic group by which they could be targetted uniquely and specifically)

Consider social consequences: if a trait is undesirable, release a virus that sterilizes those who carry it but does not kill them, only their gametes ... for example ... if homosexuality is partyly genetic nature, not uterine nature or post-birth nurture, some homophobic psycho could release a virus to ensure it never gets passed on again. Similarly, someone could virally sterilize Autistics or Aspies, who are among the most brilliant we have.

Remember also that some people believe that HIV is genetically engineered to wipe out certain populations who are not inherently gay ... some nut who idiotically thinks a virus dating back 70-80 years from first monkey-human transmission was engineered in the 1980s by their ethnic enemies may decide to return the fictional favor.

6) Especially regarding athletes, self-modification by intestinal-hormone-creating bacteria or by genetic tampering will become common in X years ... probably under 20, maybe under 10 ... scary

Morthans ... as in "More Than Human" will become common ... like ST2_TWOK, _Voyage_of_the_Star_Wolf, etc, look for people with chimp/ape muscles (higher density, cannot swim, but several times stronger), altered senses, brain boosting, etc. Retractable claws may be the rage in 2100. So might prehensile and strong tails. How altered can an athlete be and still compete in sports or in the Olympics?

7) In X years we will be able to genetically engineer large-scale DNA with interactive merging and automated validity-checking and automated-run-through to confirm that a sequence does what we want and to see how it comes out.

WHEN someone creates the first IQ-enhanced veloci-raptor capable of surviving in todays oxygen level (oxygen was more abundant in T-rex epochs) ... WHAT THE HELL DO WE DO THEN?

8) Leading to the obvious ... there will be a political fight between the PETA "save the velociraptor" crowd and the rational-people "No more velociraptors" movement.

More specifically ... we need a SPECIFIC POLICY for intentinally extincting unwelcome gengineered or re-engineered or re-born etc species ... like 150 IQ velociraptors (*shudder*).

Does anyone want to imagine an enhanced-IQ Kimodo Dragon with boosted adrenal glands, enhanced musculature, aligator-skin ... or while we're at it, just an enhanced Alligator or Crocodile?

9) Now for the scary part noone's mentioned yet: high-IQ animals and more interesting genetic or develpomental tampering.

Consider an engineered helper-dog with a 80 IQ capable of speaking via a pre-birth implanted voicebox and nerve-rewiring.

What "human rights" does this dog have? (I don't have the answer to this.)

Does a dog with an 80 IQ have more human-rights than a severely-retarded human with a 60 IQ?

How about right NOW with Koko the ape who uses sign language and can make clear sentences? (and according to an article I read had been sexually harassing _her_ FEMALE handlers, asking them to disrobe)

WHEN we create a chimp / gorilla / bonobo with an IQ above 100 ... WHAT THEN?

WHEN we start using higher-IQ animals in dangerous situations for which humans are not suited, what are the ethics of that situation? (police K9 units are hardly rare, but now a police unit has just applied to use a monkey as a pseudo-K9 ... with a (bulletproof?) ballistic vest with tools and stuff scaled down to monkey size and a shoulder-mounted camera viewable from a control station nearby.)

WHEN the two trends merge and the animals in question get REALLY PISSED OFF ... oh, offtopic, but has everyone seen Planet of the Apes?

WHEN this forces us to switch to AI-robots ... oh, offtopic again, but has everyone seen BattleStar Galactica's Cylons or Star Trek's Borg?

And of course, WE REALLY NEED TO STAY AWAY FROM SELF-REPLICATING-HIVE-MIND-ROBOTS as mentioned above regarding Stargate_SG-1.

10) I deleted a long bit here on the ethics and methods of punishing an AI that commits a crime against humanity by reprogramming Islam by holographically pretending to be the Archangel Gabriel during the Hajj ... but the question is
* How do you punish crimes by intelligent non-humans like high-IQ animals or AIs or robots?
* How criminal is harming, killing, insulting, threatening, etc of a non-human (part?)sentient?
* In the event of a real problem like high-IQ velociraptors or ocean-going-mutants, do we speci-cide them?
* What will PETA say about the intentional-re-extinction of velociraptors?
* Do clones have property rights? What about created-sentients? AIs? Dolphins? Apes? Koko? Where is the line?
* So if I have 2 kids and 2 High-IQ artificially created sentients, how does inheritance work?
* What do we consider it if in N years someone ceates a human fully-from-scratch (no contributed DNA, all coded)?
* Is a from-scratch human different in rights than a from-scratch-high-IQ-chimera or a natually-born-human?
* Will there be a National Association for the Advancement of Constructed Persons? ("Person" >= "human")
* What is the IQ cutoff for voting, driving, property rights, etc? Is language required? (NB: retarded humans)
* If AIs are considered sentient enough to vote, and they self-replicate just before an election, we have a REALLY BIG problem.
* Does an AI have to reach the voting age of 18 before attaining full rights?
* Dogs mature and die faster than humans ... does an IQ boosted dog have to wait until near death before voting?
* If people can store their mind+memories or just their brains as their bodies die, should they still vote?

And one last thing ... what happens with life-appointed offices like the Pope, US judges, the USSupreme-Court, etc once people stop dying because we can defeat every disease and even fully rejuvinate people. What happens if the Pope lives forever and goes nuts over the centuries? (The Bible does not have an Biblical-Amendment process like the US Constitution ... although I understand we can term-limit USSC justices without a constitutional amendment, though the 300-year-old justices in question could rule it unconstitutio+nal theoretically)

Jamisia said at April 24, 2005 9:04 AM:

Other, I love your questions. As far as extending personhood goes: it will I think all depend on how we respond to the first clones. I think jurisprudence will quickly treat any "constructed person" the same way as you would a centaur, mermaid or some sort of furry. I personally doubt whether there will be human clones. A recent article in a newspaper (dutch) stated that clones are necessarily, genetically bad. Apparently it is very hard to copy perfectly (gosh!). I believe this. Outlawing constructing? Impossible! You'd have to erect a policestate and turn every nation into one. You'd have to prohibit travelling, getting treatment overseas. I say: that'll never happen.
I don't believe in velociraptors, literal or otherwise. If anyone does create one, it must behave to the existing rules, just like everybody else. The law doesn't treat you different simply because you're special; that's the bloody idea of rule of law in the first place! Of course, dr. Doom-types do not listen, but then we have ways of dealing with such bozo's. The End.
Never tamper with selfreplicating robots? What if we needed them to get to Mars? Or to spread humanity across the galaxy? I think that someone sooner or later will dabble in selfreplicating rabota's, whether on earth or not. From then on, you can only enter the ensuing armsrace.

Sicko thought: what if someone created a virus that made humans addicted to blood? Blood has some definite characteristics. Shouldn't be too hard...

Lia said at April 24, 2005 12:16 PM:


There is no inherent contradiction in my statement. You have a very narrow view of the definition of "environment," which is NOT synonymous (biologically speaking) with "weather." "Environment" includes all conditions experienced by a particular species, including predators, availability of prey or sources of nutrition, disease, climate, sunlight, water, etc. (all these obviously do not necessarily apply to all species).

A native wild type culture demonstrates diversity, which includes a wide range in tolerance to conditions including drought or various pathogens. While some individuals would succumb to particularly severe conditions (persistent drought, soil salinization, global warming), other individuals would survive.

Replacement by monoculture might take a few years (depending on how high a percentage replacement one considers monoculture), but ultimately undermines the diversity that would allow survival of significant numbers of individuals under catastophic conditions (and therefore also undermines future adaptation).

Smallpox was catastrophic to Native Americans because, in the absence of prior exposure, they had virtually no native resistance. Similar to monoculture. Nevertheless, due to inherent variation in the 'wild-type,' some people obviously survived, but the consequences for the population as a whole were devastating.

Would we want to create a condition where more people looked (immunologically speaking) like pre-Columbian Americans and then wait for another smallpox to strike? Would we want a monoculture staple that would be susceptible to the next potato blight or Dutch Elm disease to come around the block?

I am talking about an overall weakening of the gene pool of the species. A monoculture can take hold over a few years. The change in environment can be cumulative over years, or a single catastrophic event (such as the introduction of an unrecognized pathogen) anytime afterward. I'm not talking a few rainy Sundays.

U. C. Berkeley Biophysicist said at April 24, 2005 12:26 PM:

The above story is about as likely as thinking that hobbyists will compete with each other for creating the world's strongest laser:

"Imagine thugs running around shooting random people with their ever more powerful lasers just for fun. One day, semiconductor heterostructures will be so cheap and ubiquitous that even Islamists can make and use them against us. Then we'll regret allowing such technology to exist in the first place."

Just to really highlight the absurdity of rampant genetic engineering, the equipment required to perform even simple protein expression on E. coli or yeast requires far more disparate knowledge than those required to make semiconducting lasing materials. When you start moving into higher eukaryotes (e.g. dogs), things are orders of magnitude more complicated -- for example, you cannot simply buy "competent dog cell lines" like you can with E. coli.

Often months of labor are required for one protein. So I find the speculation on the likelihood of this scenario somewhat offensive because it downplays (or is ignorant of) the actual labor performed in molecular biology these days. It serves only to scare people of the (often implausible) catastrophic results of science, which is really not helpful. Next time, instead of wild speculation, I hope you will take the time to ask people in the field about the plausibility of these sorts of doomsday scenarios.

Sorry for the rant.

Randall Parker said at April 24, 2005 12:58 PM:

U.C. Berkeley Biophysicist,

I am old enough to remember punch cards for entering data in computers and troff, nroff, and the like for formatting text to printers. Well, how hard is MS Word as compared to punch cards and troff? How hard is Windows as compared to DOS command lines or perhaps C Shell? Computers are no longer operated only by a technological priesthood. We no longer have to type up card decks and submit them at a desk to have our programs run.

Yes, your work in labs is really hard. But about 25 years ago I attended a seminar by Leroy Hood where he introduced the first automated DNA sequencer. At the time he said that the reagents had to be so pure that he a lab tech working full time purifying the best commercial reagents to make them pure enough for his mass spectrometer and other parts of his apparatus. Since then DNA sequencing machines have become much easier to use, orders of magnitude cheaper, and orders of magnitude faster.

Now a company has released a gene testing technology usable in a doctor's office to check to see which kind of cytochrome p450 variant a person has. As I see it we have come a long way baby and are going to go a long way further.

Early computer virus writers had to write everything from scratch. Now there are virus construction kits that script kiddies can use to cause havoc using mechanisms the script kiddies do not understand. Again, I see this as part of a larger pattern.

And your months of labor for a protein: I remember when Guillemin and Schally first purified LHRH or FSHRH (forget which they did first) and how big a deal this was. They spent decades to do going thru about a million pig and sheep brains to get the material and won a Nobel Prize. A few years later (early 80s) a biochemist told me that the task would at that time be assigned to a grad student to be done in a few months because of better equipment.

Is gene therapy going to remain difficult? The Olympic Committee and WADA think athletes may show up at the 2008 Olympics genetically enhanced. This'll be done in the black market. In 2012 the gene therapy will be easier still.

Another example: Lots of work (tens of millions from the NIH) is going into developing saliva RNA and protein tests performable in doctors' offices to test for infections and a large variety of other diseases. Those doing the research expect to see it deployed in 2 or 3 years. The need to culture samples in a lab for a few days to detect strep may become a thing of the past.

You can tell me how hard things are to do today. But step back from today and look at yesterday and tomorrow. 2 or 3 decades ago many of those tasks were literally orders of magnitude harder. 2 or 3 decades hence they will be done with microfluidics using mass produced chips and will be orders of magnitude easier.

U. C. Berkeley Biophysicist said at April 24, 2005 2:24 PM:


You bring up very good points. Things do get easier with time -- structural biology nowadays is much easier than it was for Watson, Crick and Franklin -- now one lets the computers do the work. But I think it's not altogether fair to say that the rise of biology will mimic the rise of computer science.

First of all, biology is not discrete. It is a huge, vast, network of cross-talking, multiply-layered set of interactions. For most situations of interest, one simply cannot "make a gene for x." It's more like "make an allele under the proper promotor, whose execution is controlled by operon y and whose expression results in a protein that interacts orthogonally with the other cell components." This is just one protein -- when you want novel traits, you're asking for an exponentially more difficult problem. For instance, it may not be so simple to make a virus that only attacks black dogs. What if black is the "default trait" for dogs? What if the only thing that differs a white dog from a black dog is that a white dog has an additional gene? Something as superficial as coat color arrises as the result of the interaction and coordination of many different alleles.

Furthermore, there is a difference in turnover time. A new computer program could be coded, re-coded and debugged several times during the course of a year. How long will it take to understand how a specific gene insert affects a eukaryote? With yeast, fairly quickly. With dogs? With humans? A monthlong turnover of a cell line will tell you nothing. You would need longitudinal studies that would necessarily take years to understand. Someone would have to see potential benefits and pay for that research too.

Lastly, I think there also should be a clear difference in biology between description and synthesis. Your example of saliva RNA diagnosis is a good one, but fails so make this distinction. Think about it this way: in chemistry, I can tell if there are amino acids present in solution by dropping in ninhydrin. However, it's an altogether more difficult task to make tryptophan de novo. Biology is no different -- sequencing a gene insert is much simpler than cutting, ligating, transforming, and purifying the resulting protein. Now the same difference arises when talking about inserting a gene versus inserting a signalling pathway. Let alone engineering a virus in a "hobbyist's lab." Synthetic biology is barely even a science now.

I agree with you that we should always remain vigilant lest technology fall into the hands of the irresponsible. But I also think it's a little irresponsible to analogize biology to computer science. Real virology is quite different from writing computer viruses. And I say with some certainty that it always will be!

U. C. Berkeley Biophysicist said at April 24, 2005 2:35 PM:

I should say that I appreciate your thoughts! This was a thoughtful, interesting piece. I just also wanted to be clear that I think there were some unfounded fears in the piece. Thanks!

Randall Parker said at April 24, 2005 10:44 PM:

U.C. Berkeley Biophysicist,

You say,

First of all, biology is not discrete. It is a huge, vast, network of cross-talking, multiply-layered set of interactions. For most situations of interest, one simply cannot "make a gene for x." It's more like "make an allele under the proper promotor, whose execution is controlled by operon y and whose expression results in a protein that interacts orthogonally with the other cell components." This is just one protein -- when you want novel traits, you're asking for an exponentially more difficult problem.

The phrase "cross-talking multiply-layered sets of interactions" describes 8 layered motherboards which, in turn, have multi-million transistor chips. It also describes complex computer networks. There are great simulations for motherboard and CPU chip designs. Granted, proteins require many orders of magnitude more computer power to simulate. But I expect a lot of genetic regulatory systems to be modelled digitally a lot more easily than 3-D protein shaping and protein interactions.

I do't think the part about how to find out how to modify a promoter to up or down regulate it will be that hard 20 years hence. We will be able to find many functionally different variations of existing promoters to compare using faster and cheaper DNA sequencing and DNA testing technologies. So we won't have to develop entirely new variations from scratch in many cases.

Novel traits desired for one organism will, in many cases, be found to already exist in other organisms. Want a gene that does X? We have all the variations in all the species in the world to look through to find it. So design from scratch will not be the primary way to create new features for any given species.

If you decide you want feature X and can't find it in the existing literature 20 or 30 years from now then starting the search from scratch will be harder. But suppose you are some future genetic script kiddie. You'll find plenty to do if you choose among all the genotypes and phenotypes that will have been found 20 or 30 years hence. Your odds of success might not be high. But if millions of genetic script kiddies are trying some will succeed.

Mr. Econotarian said at April 26, 2005 8:52 AM:

The greatest threat is that GOVERNMENT will OVER-REGULATE GENETIC ENGINEERING and reduce potential innovation from amateurs.

With that, let me point you to DNAHack.com

Bode Bliss said at April 26, 2005 3:13 PM:

I know the cure and so do you. The cure will be paint that watches your every action and listens to your every word and reports strange things via RFID to the AI. Your phone, house, car, clothes and who knows what else will tell on you.

Gosh, I thought you were futurists here. You know the ability to have gene manipulation at home, so you can increase your longevity and make those things you need w/o buying them, will come w/ a price on it. The price will be no privacy.

Bode Bliss said at April 26, 2005 3:21 PM:

Randal Parker wrote:
"If you decide you want feature X and can't find it in the existing literature 20 or 30 years from now then starting the search from scratch will be harder. But suppose you are some future genetic script kiddie. You'll find plenty to do if you choose among all the genotypes and phenotypes that will have been found 20 or 30 years hence. Your odds of success might not be high. But if millions of genetic script kiddies are trying some will succeed."

There will be open source genetics and nanite building.

Peter Moran said at September 21, 2008 7:24 PM:

would you mind if i took about 10 minutes to interview you for my senior project if so, please email me at tpck2003@yahoo.com my project is on genetic engineering

thank you for your time,

Neo137 said at June 1, 2017 5:39 AM:

Obviously this post is old as dirt, but the post and comments still hold valid arguments, over many scenarios and ethical concerns.

My take on it.... All of your worst fears & hopes, will happen.

The genetic engineering of living organizing, will eliminate diseases, and make new ones.
The genetic engineering of plants and animals, will be beneficial in some circumstances, but displacement will occur.

DNA doping, along with human/animal hybridization will happen.
The military will do this in black ops development projects, as much as the black market will offer similar services.
Developments in techniques like photothermal engineering, will make things even easier.

The worst part is, the public will be subjected to genetic engineering, against their will or knowledge.

I at least,mwould want free will over genetic engineering, which is why, first and foremost,
Something akin to a firewall, or other measures of safety and security, must be developed on a consumer level.
or you will be genetically hacked by others.
The cat and mouse game between computer virus and virus security, will directly model the threat of genome hacking in humans.
It will be a scary world.

Personally, I would rather hack my own DNA.

I would like to hybridize my own skin with that of a day octopus, do I can adopt it's camoflage capabilities of color & texture, as well as neural networks of a "second brain" included in my skin.
I would like to engineer the bioluminescent capabilities of a cave glow worm, to emit in artful patterns from my skin.
I would like the ability to develop electrical organs like in electric eels, within the cellular tissue of my skin, so I could electrocute people as a defense.

Now that's a lot of hacking, just to give myself, really cool unique super-human abilities, just by hacking & hybridizing my own DNA.
But then I would displace the current human species, if I had the capacity to produce, and transmit my morphed DNA to offspring.
I know, I know, there's a plethora of ethical concerns, but I'd rather be in charge over my own genetic engineering, than enslaved by others against my will through genetic engineering.

Plus it would be cool to have day octopus camoflage so I can change color & texture, glow with bioluminescent light, and electrocute people who threaten me.

Neo137 said at June 1, 2017 5:43 AM:

Obviously this post is old as dirt, but the post and comments still hold valid arguments, over many scenarios and ethical concerns.

My take on it.... All of your worst fears & hopes, will happen.

The genetic engineering of living organizing, will eliminate diseases, and make new ones.
The genetic engineering of plants and animals, will be beneficial in some circumstances, but displacement will occur.

DNA doping, along with human/animal hybridization will happen.
The military will do this in black ops development projects, as much as the black market will offer similar services.
Developments in techniques like photothermal engineering, will make things even easier.

The worst part is, the public will be subjected to genetic engineering, against their will or knowledge.

I at least,mwould want free will over genetic engineering, which is why, first and foremost,
Something akin to a firewall, or other measures of safety and security, must be developed on a consumer level.
or you will be genetically hacked by others.
The cat and mouse game between computer virus and virus security, will directly model the threat of genome hacking in humans.
It will be a scary world.

Personally, I would rather hack my own DNA.

I would like to hybridize my own skin with that of a day octopus, do I can adopt it's camoflage capabilities of color & texture, as well as neural networks of a "second brain" included in my skin.
I would like to engineer the bioluminescent capabilities of a cave glow worm, to emit in artful patterns from my skin.
I would like the ability to develop electrical organs like in electric eels, within the cellular tissue of my skin, so I could electrocute people as a defense.

Now that's a lot of hacking, just to give myself, really cool unique super-human abilities, just by hacking & hybridizing my own DNA.
But then I would displace the current human species, if I had the capacity to produce, and transmit my morphed DNA to offspring.
I know, I know, there's a plethora of ethical concerns, but I'd rather be in charge over my own genetic engineering, than enslaved by others against my will through genetic engineering.

Plus it would be cool to have day octopus camoflage so I can change color & texture, glow with bioluminescent light, and electrocute people who threaten me.

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