Thursday, June 28, 2007

One Small Step for - aggh! Ack! Arrggh!

Artificial, genetically engineered, specific-purpose, bacterial lifeforms grown in a laboratory and released into the wide world to do their masters' bidding. Sounds like the prelude to a great and frightening sci-fi movie. But it's real. And it's dangerous.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Scientists have taken a first step toward making synthetic life by transferring genetic material from one bacterium into another, transforming the second microbe into a copy of the first.

They intend to use their technique to custom-design bacteria to perform functions such as producing artificial fuel or cleaning up toxic waste, the researchers report in Friday's issue of the journal Science. (Full story)

Here's how I see it playing out with one scenario at least. We have a need: to clean up a massive oil spill off the coast of Florida. We have to hurry before the fishing industries and tourist market is affected. No problem, scientists have genetically engineered a new species of bacteria (let's call it SB114a*) that breaks down crude oil without harming the environment. In simple terms, the bacteria eats the crude oil and converts it into harmless sea water. It's so safe that it can actually "clean" petroleum waste off the feathers of hapless water fowl caught in the oil slick. Great. The scientists dump a bucket of the bacterium onto the slick and watch it do its magic.

But wait, they didn't expect the bacterium to do what all living things do: evolve. As SB114a saves the day by devouring the oil slick (and cleaning oil off local rocks, local fish gills, oil-tainted birds) it grows and multiplies, and experiences the occasional genetic mutation that all things growing and multiplying experience. Suddenly, we have an altogether new species. Let's call it SB114b.

SB114b has a new trait that it picked up while it was evolving inside the oil-clogged gills of a certain bottom-feeder fish. In addition to petroleum products, it developed a taste for red blood cells. Huh, imagine that. Suddenly (faster than you can imagine) sea life is dying at an alarming rate. It's impossible to tell the world to stop eating fish, so people start dying, as well as any land animals that swim in oceans or eat from the oceans.

And this is just one scenario of accidental harm from genetic engineering. What if we put this technology into the hands of terrorists or just some crazy whacko scientist? If someone was willing to mail anthrax, what makes us think they wouldn't weaponize this science?

Read Richard Preston's The Demon In The Freezer. It's a true story, and it's frightening to think that world powers experiment with the insanity of combining anthrax bacterium with smallpox virus (among other things).

*SB114a is developed by inserting genetically engineered material into a staphylococcus bacterium (S. aureus), primarily because it is an aggressive species and strong enough to withstand extreme environments.


Blogger Alan Churchill said...

Yes, I am uncomfortable but it will happen. There are promises to have it contained but my guess is that we will have spiraling DNA ‘wars’ between scientists. One makes something that only kills Americans, we counter, kick one out that kills Persians, etc.

The world will be weird but then again, it always has been.

2:18 PM  

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