2009 January 25 Sunday
Home Genetic Engineering: What Happens When Its Easy?

Homemade do-it-yourselfer genetically engineered organisms are still pretty difficult for hobbyists. But some people are already fiddling with the genetics of organisms at home.

Using homemade lab equipment and the wealth of scientific knowledge available online, these hobbyists are trying to create new life forms through genetic engineering a field long dominated by Ph.D.s toiling in university and corporate laboratories.

In her San Francisco dining room lab, for example, 31-year-old computer programmer Meredith L. Patterson is trying to develop genetically altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the presence of melamine, the chemical that turned Chinese-made baby formula and pet food deadly.

Now let us get into our time machines and travel ahead 20 years. Microfluidic devices will be cheap and open source software for controlling them will be downloadable on the internet. What's to stop people from genetically engineering bacterial, algae, and other organisms?

Look at all the invasive species that humans have moved across geological barriers that previously kept them away from many habitats. Lots of species are on a tear as they spread out in a habitat where they bring big genetic advantages that give them competitive edges. Lots of native species get outcompeted in Hawaii, Australia, and lots of other locales around the globe. Humans will be able to create new species that'll basically do the same thing.

Big species are not the problem. Sure, in popular science fiction movies T.Rex or a Raptor rips apart a bunch of people. But big species make big targets for rifles and fishing harpoons. Plus, lots of guys would love to hunt down the genetically engineered dino that is terrorizing suburbs. It is the littler ones that are too numerous to easily control that pose the bigger threat. Genetically engineered species could really upend whole ecosystems by being very effective at outcompeting other species.

Scientists have discovered some of the genetic variations that make influenza strains more lethal and will in time identify genetic variations that make other pathogens more or less dangerous. Therefore another future threat comes in the form of a genetically engineered massive killer pandemic for humans. The same sort of threat exists for other species. Imagine a flu that would kill most sheep or cows or pigs. Or imagine some genetically engineered pathogen that would wipe out assorted wild species. This will probably become technically doable.

These threats are hard to prevent because the level of skill and amount of resources needed to do genetic engineering will go down each year for years to come. A small number of malcontents or cult believers could cause enormous damage with genetic engineering.

By Randall Parker    2009 January 25 10:52 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (18)
2005 April 20 Wednesday
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.

By Randall Parker    2005 April 20 02:33 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (71)
Site Traffic Info