We Are As Gods…
June 2, 2012
I was surfing the Internet and came across a headline in the archives of the The Los Angeles Times that caught my eye: “Turning DNA into hard drive.” So, I called up the story and was surprised to see that not only had not a single person “shared” it on Twitter or Facebook over the week that it had been posted, but the subject matter had profound implications for genetics, the ecology, and humankind.
Perhaps a better headline would have been “We Are As Gods: Living Beings Can be Programmed.”
The article (May 26, 2012: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/may/26/science/la-sci-synthetic-biology-q-a-20120526) was an interview with Stanford University bioengineer Drew Endy, who described his team’s successful experiment in “synthetic biology.” After seven years of trying, the team was able to create a way for DNA to store data or, in Endy’s words, achieve one of the “grand challenges in bioengineering” of “storing information inside living organisms.”
The process the team discovered turns an enzyme into a code that can be “flipped,” like “0” and “1” that computers use. The next step, he said, is shifting the process to go from bits to bytes. Then, within living beings, processes can be coded.
Perhaps Times readers didn’t understand the vast significance of this story. I did “share” this story on Twitter, with the hashtags (subject matter) of: Sciencefact, Biocomputers and Genetics. The heading: Here’s the Future.
Those who adhere to organics, or non-synthetic foods, are in a struggle to have genetically modified (GMO) food labeled. GMO is banned in organic growing, and European countries have resisted its use and required labeling in foods containing GMO. Only in the United States are genetically engineered seeds, plants and foods deemed safe for humans and the environment, without any independent testing, under a quirk of the food regulatory system. The companies that manufacture the patented seeds and foods say they are safe, so they are deemed safe. (Forget the federal government’s responsibility to protect the country or the environment; big corporations with deep pockets to fund election campaigns have sway over the public good.)
Not to be a Luddite, the Stanford team’s research could, no doubt, do tremendous good for humankind; imagine a gene sequence that allows carefully targeted anti-cancer agents to “turn on” and “turn off” when tumors appear, perhaps negating the devastating effects of chemotherapy. But, as with the multinational corporations’ enthusiastic funding and exportation of questionable “food products” that use “transgenic” processes, or genes from animals into plants and vice versa and even pesticides into DNA, the potential for far-reaching and perhaps irreversible ecological harm is great, as well.
For example, suppose an unintended outgrowth of a genetically encoded corn plant was to make it vulnerable to an unforeseen virus. Such an aggressive strain could spread to wipe out corn varieties worldwide, bringing global famine in its wake.
This scenario is not far-fetched; the Irish potato famine that resulted in mass starvation in the 19th century was just such a warning, but without the effects of cloning and the inbred aggressive pollination that already is part of the GMO effort to magnify it worldwide.
Or, imagine the paranoiac uses of encoding plants, animals, people or places, or responding to intrusions, that military or Homeland Security scientists could devise. Frightening scenarios as popularized in the film Hunger Games, where environments were “programmed” to kill, could become not science fiction but science reality.
There may be no way to get this genie of biocomputing back in the bottle and, indeed, like the invention of dynamite, it can have beneficial uses. But perhaps it should also be recalled that Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite, also inaugurated the Nobel Peace Prize so his legacy would not be for its military uses “as a merchant of death.”
Some ethics and morality must be bound to genetic advances. If we are to be as God, we cannot be immoral about it without the potential for unimaginably horrendous and cataclysmic consequences.
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.