Synthetic Genetic Shakespeares

Examining the implications of science and technology

Vanishing Point

Fifteen years ago a group led by Eckard Wimmer shocked the scientific community by announcing they had chemically synthesized viable polioviruses (1).  Using the genomic sequence published online they were able to patch together DNA fragment analogs and debug errors to artificially recreate functional viruses.  It took 3 years to complete this work.

That Was Yesterday

Science has come a long way since 2002.  As genomes go, poliovirus is small and some experts noted synthesizing far more complex entities like smallpox using the Wimmer group method was simply not feasible (1).  That was then.  The technology has advanced to the point that horsepox, a virus believed to be extinct with a genome about 28 times larger than polioviruses, has been resurrected by chemical synthesis (2).  This accomplishment suggests that the method could be adapted to synthesize its slightly smaller and deadly relative, smallpox virus.  Whether through accident or deliberate action, release of smallpox could be disastrous.

In 2002 experts projected that improving DNA synthesis capabilities might eventually make it possible to re-create smallpox using a different approach.  The simpler, alternative strategy would be to take a benign close relative like cowpox virus and systematically modify it to have the same genetic code as smallpox.  Improvements to DNA synthesis and manipulation techniques have increased the capabilities of genetic engineers.  What this means is that in 2017 there are two entirely feasible ways to cook up some smallpox.

A Surge of Developments

A convergence of scientific advancements has already yielded tools enabling scientists to create and alter genetic information with unprecedented speed and precision.  Researchers and societies are now attempting to define if and when genetic manipulation technologies will be employed (3).  Science has charged ahead so fast even scientists are unsure how to proceed.  And proposals currently under development (4) will foster synergistic expansions in the ability to synthesize, manipulate and modify large DNA molecules.  When these projects come to fruition they may make our current genomic engineering capacities seem primitive in comparison. 


The polio-to-pox synthesis Odyssey demonstrates how fast speculative fancy turns into hard fact in scientific research.  It also reveals how new developments shift the landscape of potential threats.  Sequence database repositories have been critical for researchers for years.  Today and going forward, as it becomes feasible for nefarious actors to use sequences as templates to synthesize pathogens, it may become necessary to evaluate what information should be restricted.  Powerful technologies such as the CRISPR genetic editing tools are so broadly accessible and potentially applicable to so many situations it is impossible for experts to anticipate all the possibilities.  As an example, Dr. Jennifer Doudna, an inventor of CRISPR technology, has described how she had a sudden revelation regarding the potential safety risks posed by modifying a virus to ferry specific DNA editing enzymes into mice (5).    

Proactive Measures         

The article by Gregory Koblentz (2) offers several practical and proactive steps that could help prevent the tragic misuse of synthetic biology technology.  The proposed measures include limiting the capacity to perform certain types of research, requiring investigators to obtain synthetic DNA from approved vendors and extending special efforts to include private sector and citizen scientist communities as responsible partners in ensuring biosecurity and biosafety.  One of the challenges is that persons with a wide range of educational backgrounds and work experiences enter what might be loosely termed the biotechnology field.  This may pose a particular challenge when it comes to awareness of ethics issues.  The U.S. National Institutes of Health mandated that all funded investigators with projects involving human research subjects complete online training courses to become familiar with the history and issues involved in the ethical conduct of such efforts. This might serve as a useful model for proactive outreach efforts to acquaint biotech workers with the fundamentals of biosecurity and best practices to ensure safety. 


The remarkable pace of new biotechnology developments will necessitate continuous evaluation to detect emerging hazards.  Perhaps the convergence of factors that will convey enormous power over life heralds a new age of wonders that will propel humans to the hypothetical H+ singularity.  Unless we manage these technologies wisely, that singularity might end up being a vanishing point.

(1) Andrew Pollack.   Traces of Terror: The Science; Scientists Create a Live Polio Virus.  The New York Times, 12 July 2002.

(2) Gregory D. Koblentz.   Smallpox Could Again Be a Serious Threat.  Slate, 19 October 2017.

(3) David Baltimore et al.   A Prudent Path Forward for Genomic Engineering and Germline Gene Modification.  Science 348(6230):36-38.

(4) Jef D. Boeke et al.   The Genome Project –Write.  Science 353(6295):126-127.

(5) Heidi Ledford. CRISPR, the Disruptor.  Nature, 3 June 2015.



The Frankenstein Singularity

Will genetic manipulation technologies be employed to change human heredity?  DNA modification experiments involving human subjects are well underway including some do-it-yourself (DIY) efforts (1, 2).  In principle it is already possible to change germ cell DNA sequences and ambitious efforts to develop greater capabilities are being discussed by scientists (3).  Are we poised to dive headlong into the human gene pool and revise it?  The evidence suggests this future event is not a question of if, but when.

History reveals humans have a long and rich history of performing anatomical/medical modifications as deemed necessary.  Some surgical interventions such as cutting holes in the skull (trepanation) were both aggressive and hazardous (4).  But dangers – known and unknown – have never stopped medical intercessions completely.  Blood transfusions and organ transplants may be life-saving, but those procedures have also posed grave threats to the health to millions.  Deadly communicable disease agents such as human immunodeficiency viruses (HIV) and hepatitis viruses (HBV, HCV) were disseminated broadly by these practices.

Bosch Stone Cut


Medical practice is dedicated to actively improving the human condition and these efforts have been fruitful.  As new information regarding how to prevent or control disease along with other measures have been reduced to practice, average life expectancy in many parts of the world increased (5).  Although we do not commonly think of the situations in this way, by saving persons who would have likely died early in life (5) it is conceivable that assuring clean water supplies or using antibiotics have altered the human gene pool.              

We now possess the capacity to manipulate our genes and those of our descendants directly.  How best to proceed is unclear even to the those in the scientific community (6, 7).  Still haunted by a gene therapy clinical trial turned tragic (8) at least some scientists recognize that serious misjudgments in the use of genomic editing and synthesis technology could lead to a public relations disaster.  Technical advancements are coming fast along multiple fronts while the scientific community itself struggles to keep pace and develop guidelines for investigators (9, 10).           

How will these debates play out?  Medical science has a long tradition of tolerating risk and failure.  For some situations, the potential benefits of genetic manipulation technologies are obvious which will create almost irresistible pressures to use them.  Perhaps framing gene sequence alterations as ‘DNA surgery’ will make the notion seem less threatening.  George Church and Ed Regis suggest that successful implementation of new biomedical technologies is a key determinant influencing their ultimate public acceptance (11).  If scientists achieve clearly beneficent goals while avoiding ridiculous speculations such as resurrecting Neanderthals it may be possible to build public support for wide use of genetic manipulation technology.  It is conceivable that success with re-writing DNA will sweep us toward the ultimate genetic temptation – tinkering with the DNA code of germ cells.  Will we decide to take direct, genetic control of human evolution?  At the moment many may consider that an alarming prospect.  Maybe future generations, accustomed to the routine use of DNA modification as a medical procedure, will see it differently.


A fascinating and simultaneously frightening aspect of genetic biotechnology is its level of accessibility.  Without investing huge sums of money Biohackers and the DIY-inclined have been able to perform some interesting gene modification experiments (1, 2).  By and large DIY self-experimentation efforts fall beyond the purview of the authorities as well as the guidelines adhered to by professional researchers.  Where these enthusiasts will drive the field is unknown, but maybe they have already demonstrated how our biotechnology future will unfold.  And it will be livestreamed.               

The singularity we are approaching may not emerge in the form of a sudden, shocking revelation.  More subversion than revolution, it will literally embody the products of our own hands.  The ultimate fusion in which creator and creation – or wretch – become one.




(1) Stephanie M. Lee.   The Guy Says He’s the First Person to Attempt Editing His DNA with CRISPR.  BuzzFeed News, 14 October 2017.

(2) Kirsten V. Brown.   This Guy Just Injected Himself With a DIY HIV Treatment on Facebook Live.  Gizmodo, 18 October 2017.

 (3) Jef D. Boeke et al.   The Genome Project-Write.  Science, 8 July 2016, [353(6295):126-127].

(4) Robin Wylie.   Why Our Ancestors Drilled Holes in Each Other’s Skulls., 29 August 2016.

(5) Laura Helmuth.   Why Are You Not Dead Yet?  Slate, 5 September 2013.

(6) David Baltimore et al.   A Prudent Path Forward for Genomic Engineering and Germline Genetic Modification.  Science, 19 March 2015 [348(6230):36-38].

(7) The Editorial Board. Gene-therapy Trials Must Proceed With Caution.  Nature, 28 June 2016 (534:590).

(8) Sheryl G. Stolberg. 1999. The Biotech Death of Jesse Gelsinger. The New York Times, 28 November 1999.

(9) Edward Lanphier et al.   Don’t Edit the Human Germline. Nature, 26 March 2015 (519:410-411).

(10) Ewen Callaway.   Gene-editing Research in Human Embryos Gains Momentum.  Nature, 19 April 2016 (523:289-290).

(11) George Church and Ed Regis.   Regenesis. How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.  Basic Books, New York.


When Scientists Shock

Scientific advances and leaps in technological prowess are often awe-inspiring.  Researchers compete for funding and capturing public attention may help them attract essential resources which gives them an incentive to communicate their results.  A large number of researchers are producing great volumes of fine work.  These conditions have left us in a strange situation where almost every day we expect to see another ‘truly amazing scientific advance’ story. 

Certain science and technology stories stand out from the crowd.  A few discoveries or technologies are instantly recognizable for their groundbreaking nature and potentially far-reaching implications.  For example, a new genetic manipulation method known as CRISPR has captured public attention due to its many obvious medical and biotechnological uses.  Using CRISPR to modify human beings also poses vexing ethical issues (1) which has stimulated public controversy and concern. 

Some efforts are intentionally crafted top-to-bottom to be shocking (2, 3, 4).  Researchers concerned by troubling trends in computer technology development drew attention – and harsh criticism – by applying it in a way almost guaranteed to be upsetting (2).  Physician-scientists demonstrated a new method to create 3-parent babies and simultaneously issued a direct challenge to regulations limiting such efforts (3).  Using scientific advances to issue warnings or challenge norms is not new.  Fifteen years ago Eckard Wimmer and colleagues synthesized a fully viable poliovirus in the lab to show it could be done and awaken the world to the implications (4).       

Lightning strike


Clearly, scientists generally recognize when they are approaching red lines.  Their response is not necessarily a rush to transgress boundaries.  When it was apparent that research groups were getting close to announcing CRISPR technology had been used to modify human embryo genes, a group of distinguished scientists called for a moratorium on such work (5).  However, scientists may sometimes overlook tricky ethical situations and end up shocking the public.  Recent work employing public data and tracking technology identified one person as the artist or member of a group known as Banksy (6).  Reasoning that a national newspaper had already identified him as a suspect, the Institutional Review Board overseeing research involving human subjects decided the effort posed no substantial risk to that person.  That decision has been contentious and many researchers recognized outsourcing ethical conduct responsibilities to another organization – similar to a claim that everyone else does it – does not meet the standard expected of investigators.

Red line


It is often impossible for researchers to envision the full consequences of their creations.  One reason is that convergent technological innovations build the foundation for further advances.  DNA sequencing methods combined with advances in computer technology and the rise of the internet supercharged genetic research.  Teaming these breakthrough technologies with parallel advances in capacities to artificially synthesize DNA molecules led to Dr. Wimmer’s realization that science had quietly crossed a potentially dangerous threshold (4).  The other wildcard for those seeking to predict the technological future is human ingenuity.  Bits of information that were nothing more than apparently minor new knowledge at the time of original discovery when set at a late date in the fresh context of new findings have been transformed into bonanzas.  The ways bacteria defended themselves from virus attacks were once esoteric aspects of microbiology.  Harnessing the enzymes involved ultimately enabled the development of recombinant DNA technology and the CRISPR-based gene manipulation revolution to come.  Even experts working at the cutting edge of new technology may be stunned as new applications reveal unanticipated, not always pleasant, potentials (1).  CRISPR tools have enormous potential to benefit humankind, but a few tweaks could conceivably render them horrifyingly dangerous (1). 


As we are now coming to understand with social media, complex systems built to provide specific functions may be adapted or perverted to serve the goals of others (7).  Even experts are unable to anticipate all the implications of their creations.  Whenever you see scientists attempting to shock the public or their peers, pay careful attention.  It won’t be long before you get jolted. 


(1) Heidi Ledford.   CRISPR, the Disruptor.  Nature, 522:20-24.

(2) Heather Murphy.   Why Stanford Researchers Tried to Create a ‘Gaydar’ Machine.  The New York Times, 9 October 2017.

(3) Sara Reardon.   ‘Three-Parent Baby’ Claim Raises Hopes – and Ethical Concerns.  Nature, 28 September 2016.

(4) Joby Warrick.   Custom-Built Pathogens Raise Bioterror Fears.  The Washington Post, 31 July 2006.

(5) David Baltimore et al.   A Prudent Path Forward for Genomic Engineering and Germline Gene Modification.  Science, 19 March 2015.

(6) Elizabeth Gibney.   Ethics of Internet Research Trigger Scrutiny.  Nature, 3 October 2017.

(7) Noam Cohen. Silicon Valley Is Not Your Friend.  The New York Times, 13 October 2017.



Looking for Life on Mars – Are Scientists Running Out of Time?

Is it possible that scientists seeking evidence of life on the planet Mars are being too timid?  Have concerns over contaminating Martian environments with terrestrial microbes been exaggerated out of proportion to actual risks?  Will the imminent arrival of human explorers and colonists make all such precautions utterly futile?  A recent article makes a strong case that scientists hoping to capture pristine samples from Mars may have missed the opportunity (1).  And in the event the red planet has not already been seeded by terrestrial microbes transferred on

Earth and Mars

our scientific probes or the natural process of interplanetary panspermia, the author is concerned our efforts to avoid contaminating Mars will not matter much once humans arrive. 

Are Martian Ecosystems Vulnerable to Invasions or Not?

At this point it is impossible to say whether Martian ecology has been disturbed by microbes from Earth.  Our knowledge of terrestrial microbial ecology is rudimentary and Mars is a complete unknown.  On one hand it seems reasonable to assert that any Martian microbes would be so exquisitely adapted to their environments that no hitchhiking terrestrial bugs accidentally inoculated there could possibly displace them.  That would seem to make our laborious precautions to prevent transfer unnecessary.  However, introductions of exotic species have sometimes totally disturbed normal ecological balances and microbial invasions have been documented (2).  In addition, if Martian environments are sparsely populated or uninhabited they may be vulnerable to invasion (3).

Hypotheses vs. Facts

Although no spacecraft can be guaranteed to have been totally sterilized, systematic decontamination measures have been employed for Mars missions.  Terrestrial microbiologists accustomed to working in richly populated environments have developed mechanisms to acquire samples that are as free from extraneous contamination as possible.  Such measures make interpreting results much simpler.  Even though recent Mars missions have not been designed to search for living microbes, the minimal contamination strategy makes good sense scientifically.  Other than demonstrating, at great expense, intelligent life forms can successfully execute an artificial form of panspermia, recovery of invasive terrestrial vagabonds left behind by prior survey missions would not be a big advance.  But what if our spacecraft or natural panspermia have already inoculated Mars?  Is that possibility enough to jettison planetary protection protocols and greenlight missions into the Special Regions deemed most likely to harbor life or evidence of life?  Notwithstanding the fallout from abandoning formal treaty obligations to safeguard such places, the idea Mars has already been contaminated by human exploration or panspermia is an unproven hypothesis.  Scientists are unlikely to go along with such actions when the answer remains a matter of opinion.


The Humans Are Coming!

Does imminent human exploration or colonization of Mars force scientists to rush ahead and drop safeguards?  There seems little doubt that humans will transfer living microbes to the planet.  Even worse, spaceflight conditions might induce the evolution of microbes with unique and unpredictable properties (4).  Could all that be the end of any hope to analyze uncontaminated samples?  Again, the only thing more limited than our understanding of terrestrial microbial ecology is our knowledge of Martian ecology.  Only a miniscule portion of the Martian surface has been examined directly and even the Special Region designations are conjectural.  It is impossible to say if accidental contamination by previous missions carries any significant implications for the immediate vicinity, a region or the entire planet.  Until it can be proven that proactive protection measures and operational restrictions are futile, I doubt that mission planners will embrace the idea of removing them.  We have to see how the authorities – whomever they may be – will prioritize and accommodate future missions involving humans into the on-going plans to search for signs of life on the red planet.

Maybe We Have Already Driven Right Past Them

Could Mars and Earth have followed similar paths of physical and perhaps biological evolution for a time?  We see how microbial life on Earth has exploited even the most hostile environments so maybe Mars still has relict organisms holding on in scattered locations.  Or could conditions in spots be more hospitable than what we believe are representative for the planet as a whole?  Some terrestrial microbes thrive under environmental conditions that at first glance would appear to be completely inimical to them.  For example, cryptoendolithic microbes evade hostile conditions by taking shelter within rocks.  



Hot, dry desert ecosystems harbor algae which grow under light-colored stones where they find sufficient water and the right level of light to support photosynthesis. 





Searching for life or signs of past life on Mars are complicated undertakings.  Perhaps the prospect of human arrivals will spur scientists to speed up their efforts.  We are about to go down some uncharted paths and explore totally unknown territories.  Maybe one of our rovers has already driven past rocks with native Martian microbes living in or under them. 


(1) Alberto G. Fairén.   Worries About Spreading Earth Microbes Shouldn’t Slow Search for Life on Mars.  The Conversation, 28 September 2017.

(2) Sarah A. Spaulding et al.   Diatoms as Non-native Species.   The Diatoms, 2nd edition, J. P. Smol and E. F. Stoermer, editors.  Cambridge University Press, 2010.

(3) Wilk-Wozniak and K. Najberek. 2013.  Towards Clarifying the Presence of Alien Algae in Inland Waters – Can We Predict Places of Their Occurrence?  Biologia 68(5):838-844.,536

(4) Nicola Davis.   ‘The Enemy Within’: Mars Crews Could Be at Risk From Onboard Microbes –Study.  The Guardian, 4 October 2017.


Danger Signs – Is Science Under Stress?

A TED Radio Hour segment aired on National Public Radio (NPR) offered listeners a rather unique perspective of how some scientists work (1).  The short version of the story is that researchers are not always eager to facilitate the efforts of other scientists with the same interests.  Some work areas are intensely competitive which may make investigators in possession of rare bio-specimens reluctant to share them.  It may be science, but it really is a simple situation.  Getting priority in publication helps academic researchers secure tenure and grant funding.  Helping others could be detrimental, so sometimes people get possessive of samples and data.  Scientists have good overall intentions, but the competitive aspects of the business and careerism may overwhelm them.


Scientists Not Sharing is Nothing New

Issues over sample and data sharing are well known in many areas of scientific endeavor (2) and common enough that many scientific journals have explicit policies on such matters (3).  Undoubtedly there are situations where investigators are simply unable to provide samples.  For example, requests seeking materials used and described in publications that appeared many years earlier.  However, I will hazard a guess that many scientists can recount stories of reluctant colleagues who were not forthcoming or set up roadblocks to sample requests.  Yes, it might be possible to take up such matters with the journal editor.  Unless the editor is the person refusing to provide samples.  The roadblock game can be extremely frustrating to overcome because there may never be any actual outright refusal to provide materials, but might involve actions such as making compliance contingent on answering questions as to how the requestor intends to use them.  You can see how competition may incentivize non-cooperative behaviors.  And perhaps some will admit that in the reverse situation they might not be good colleagues in order to protect a student or out of fear that aiding a competitor could backfire.  Scientists are judged by their publication records and helping competitors publish is not a top priority.

Emerging Financial Incentives

Academic institutions encourage researchers to attempt to patent aspects of their work.  A spectacular example of collaborators turned combatants has been provided by the intense struggles to control CRISPR-Cas gene editing technology (4).  This is not the first time legal disputes between researchers have been ignited by the prospect of big financial gain.  Biotechnology is now big business and we are likely to see more battles in the future.  The great irony in all this is that a good deal of the ground-breaking research now being done involves inter-disciplinary work.  At a time when broad dissemination of results and cooperation are recognized as key factors promoting success, other forces may conspire against group efforts.   

Coping Strategies?

Science is a competitive enterprise, research grant funding is limited and investigators are in a publish or perish environment.  These factors are unlikely to change.  Perhaps we will discover unethical behavior charges will grow in volume.  Or maybe scientists will seek other ways to succeed under withering competition.  Will some or many of them turn to cognitive enhancers (5) to get ahead of the tough and capable competition? 

How should the general public approach this situation?  It might be wise to remember that pressures may lead some scientists to exaggerate the importance of new findings.  News stories of breakthroughs or impending disease cures need to weighed skeptically.  It is also important to look to see if articles describing new advances explicitly mention any competing interests of the researchers.  Collaborations and consulting arrangements do not necessarily mean all claims are exaggerated, but unless other viewpoints are represented in the writing it is possible you are getting one side of a more complicated larger story.  Current trends suggest that we should expect many prominent scientists will have competing interests. 

(1) TED Radio Hour, 29 September 2017. Part 2 of the Citizen Science episode; Sharon Terry: When Siblings Get a Rare Diagnosis, Can Their Parents Find the Cure?  National Public Radio,

(2) Maggie Puniewska.   Scientists Have a Sharing Problem.  The Atlantic, 15 December 2014.


(4) Heidi Ledford. Bitter Fight Over CRISPR Patent Heats Up.  Nature, 12 January 2016.

(5) Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir.   Professor’s Little Helper.  Nature 450:1157-1159.


As You Like It – The Singularity Emerges

Facebook executives now admit they have created an entity they do not control completely (1).  As the company seeks ways to curb the malevolent aspects of their invention, observers have likened their predicament to the Frankenstein story (1).  We now seem to have arrived at the point in Mary Shelly’s novel where Dr. Frankenstein acknowledges his creature and strikes a bargain to satisfy his demands.  We will see how matters play out for Facebook.        

Personalized Mass Marketing

Whether the commandeering of Facebook functionality was predictable (2) or not it is important to understand how it seems to have been exploited.  Members are the center of attention of surveillance algorithms.  However, the real Facebook customers are advertisers and this mass marketing enterprise is a great service for them because it is so good at learning what each and every one of its 2 billion users likes (2). 

Click-bait as the New Truthiness     

As we view, linger over and actively ‘like’ content, Facebook artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms figure out what keeps us happy (2).  Because substantial numbers of members are willing to share information, the inter-member transmission process may become an infectious chain reaction.  With 2 billion users, commercial goals of supreme importance and little editorial oversight, results predictably have varied.  Facebook is the premier global news aggregator of the world wide web with a surprising tendency to promote information incest.  Indulging penchants does cultivate contented consumers.  But the software might also blinker users and the ease with which content can be shared could prompt us to forward materials that resonate regardless of their accuracy (3).  In fairness, Facebook was not created to educate the public.


Facebook as the Harbinger

Scientists have speculated how biotechnology may be employed to create the perfect astronauts of the future (4).  Some of the proposals are sheer flights of fancy, but the fundamental philosophy of human beings reduced to instrumentality should look familiar.                    

Facebook has teamed artificial intelligence (AI) with internet-mediated infotainment to transform service-using persons into infinitely scalable and profitable data products.  By the time biotechnology allows a more physically concrete metamorphosis into living products we will be accustomed to the role.  The singularity is sneaking up on us.     

There are more shiny things to come.  Will we ‘Like’ them into reality?

(1) Kevin Roose.   Facebook’s Frankenstein Moment.  The New York Times, 21 September 2017.

(2) Zeynep Tufekci.   Facebook’s Ad Scandal Isn’t a ‘Fail,’ It’s a Feature.  The New York Times, 23 September 2017.

(3) Nina Jankowicz.   The Only Way to Defend Against Russia’s Information War.  The New York Times, 25 September 2017.

(4) Antonio Regalado.   Engineering the Prefect Astronaut.  MIT Technology Review, 15 April 2017.


A Suborned Ecosystem Eats Itself – Is This How It Ends For Us?

Since human beings have been on the Earth they have treated the planet like they own the place.  Appropriating land and water resources, humans have prospered and multiplied while other living residents with equally valid claims have declined.  Human self-centeredness has become deadly; we are causing a sixth mass extinction event (1).        

The Hole Story

Extinctions and mass die-offs leave holes in ecosystems.  Species may pass away quietly with little awareness on our part, but when prominent trees like Elm and Ash species are decimated by the arrival of invasive diseases (2) the physical voids are more obvious.  We plant new tree species and other varieties eventually fill in the gaps in our forests.  To the casual observer everything seems fine, but nothing is ever really the same because these human-caused disease invasions alter and sometimes erase completely the structure and function of our living world.    

The Little Nothing Changes that Changed Everything

Self-anointed masters of the world, humans have only vague notions about how ecology works.  Our careless ignorance has been costly; Minamata disease and the global spread of threatening viruses like yellow fever and Zika have been the unforeseen outcomes of the traditional ways of doing business.  The harsh reality is we have virtually no capacity to anticipate some disastrous events until they unfold around us.

A minor change in livestock husbandry practices, collecting the waste materials from slaughtered cattle known as offal and feeding it back to dairy and beef herds, did not elicit much concern.  That simple change could have ended up killing us all.  The new recycling practice precipitated the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) epidemic which ultimately invaded humans as new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) (3).  Named for the characteristic expansive holes they produce in brain tissue, these invariably fatal diseases are caused by a unique class of transmissible disease agent, the prions (4).  Pathologic prions are mis-folded versions of normal cell proteins, something far different from more familiar infectious microorganisms or viruses.  As we learned the hard way with diseases like Kuru, BSE and vCJD, prions can be transmitted through dietary practices (4).  Turning cattle into cannibals by feeding them meat and bone meal recovered from slaughterhouse offal led to the unwitting amplification of pathologic prions.  Only when an epidemic of the signs and symptoms of this slow-progressing neurologic disease appeared in dairy cattle was it realized something was terribly wrong.  How many persons will ultimately die from consuming prion contaminated food?  The experiment is in progress and it will take a long time to find out.


Prions Out of Control

Another TSE known as chronic wasting disease (CWD), is now a focus of growing concern (5).  CWD is known to afflict deer, moose, caribou and elk and some recent experiments suggest it could pose a threat to humans consuming meat from infected animals.  CWD has been particularly associated with game farms where animals are held in high densities because these prions are spread readily through direct contact with feces, saliva, blood and urine (6).  Human desires are not always compatible with ecosystem logic; the spread of CWD has clearly been facilitated by game farming practices.  All indications reveal the CWD epidemic is expanding with some groups estimating that between 7,000-15,000 infected game animals are consumed annually in North America (3).                                         

Cascading Consequences

Once generated, pathologic prions are extraordinarily resistant to inactivation.  There are no drug treatments; to stop the BSE epidemic in Great Britain infected animals were culled and their carcasses destroyed.  CWD is on the loose in nature and as stricken wild animals die, plants and soils – the environment itself – may become laden with pathologic prions that could remain infectious for years (7).  Worse, some work suggests that CWD might infect other species including mice and voles (3).  These animals are important components of food webs and while the implications of such CWD susceptibility are unknown, the possibility that the function of entire ecosystems could be disrupted is disquieting. 

Perhaps we are seeing the first infectious prion-mediated self-consumption of ecosystems.  Analogous to the fatal spongiform pathology seen in the brains of its victims, rampant prion contamination of the environment could leave gaping holes in the structure and function of vital ecosystems.  If that is the case, it seems unlikely humans will emerge unscathed from the self-inflicted sixth mass extinction event.  


(1) Damian Carrington.   Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Event Under Way, Scientists Warn.  The Guardian, 10 July 2017.

 (2) Damian Carrington.   Red List: Ash Trees and Antelopes on the Brink of Extinction.  The Guardian, 14 September 2017.

(3) Mo Costandi.   Mad Cows, Cannibalism and the Shaking Death.  The Guardian, 26 September 2013.

(4) John Collinge.   Mammalian Prions and Their Wider Relevance in Neurodegenerative Diseases.  Nature 539:217-226.

(5) Dan Zukowski.   Venison, Elk May No Longer Be Safe to Eat – Study: Deadly Chronic Wasting Disease Could Be Moving to Humans.  Enviro News, 15 August 2017.

(6) Centers for Disease Control.   Chronic wasting disease.

(7) Carl Zimmer.   Fire May Be the Only Remedy for a Plague Killing Deer and Elk.  The New York Times, 26 June 2017.


Scientists Sending Messages

Who’s In Charge Here?

A group of scientists has announced a desire to beam messages into space (1).  To this point the search for intelligent life beyond Earth has primarily involved listening and looking for artificial electromagnetic radiation emissions.  The proposed active signaling strategy is intended to direct the attention of intelligent alien neighbors to us and elicit an unambiguous response.  Opinions vary among scientists as to whether or not conducting an active search is wise (1).  In addition to the technical details that must be sorted out concerning the nature and content of any communications, the ultimate question becomes just who will be empowered to greenlight an undertaking with the potential to impact everyone on our planet.  The short answer is, barring some sort of regulatory action by nation-states, the scientists will empower themselves make this call.  If the majority of scientists oppose active signaling, will dissenting researchers proceed on their own authority?      

Old Orders of Business Disrupted

New technologies may disrupt entire communities.  That happens in science as well as advances smash both technical limits and entry barriers to make once impossible projects feasible. We are seeing this as private enterprises seize the initiative in space exploration, genomic editing of living organisms and artificial intelligence development.  New opportunities can foster a gold rush-like sense of urgency and as more groups are technologically empowered the chorus grows to give researchers free reign to transgress traditional boundaries.  For scientists, the great sucking sound of change is not due to their jobs going down the metaphorical drain, but old rules of conduct being swept away by irresistible tides of new technologies.

The New Conflicts

Scientists respond to external pressures and it is important to keep in mind as you follow developments that they sometimes serve more than one master.  Nobel laureate Paul Berg noted nearly a decade ago (2) that reaching broad consensus on if and how new scientific advances should be exploited is more complicated than it was in years past.  The expertise and advice of accomplished scientists is valuable leading to strong demand for them to serve as corporate consultants or on advisory boards.  Such associations could present a direct conflict of interest to a scientist called on to judge the risks and benefits of new technologies.  It can be hard for the public to know if scientists writing or speaking on various topics are totally objective evaluators or if they have competing financial interests.  This is how the world works today.

Are Scientists Sending Unintentional Signals?

A recent article outlined the speculations of a few scientists as to how it may soon be possible to construct the ideal astronaut (3).  Space travel hazards may be too much for ordinary humans, so to explore Mars and beyond it might be necessary to improve on natural evolution.  If building suitable spacecraft is not feasible or affordable, we may just have to manufacture astronauts able to take whatever conveyance the project low-bidder gives them. 

The ideas being pondered for super-human space travelers ranged from rendering them impervious to radiation damage to making them physically small – around half the current average size of an adult.  Genetic manipulation technology is advancing so quickly that perhaps in the future contractors with ambitions to win space exploration bids will find molding human beings to fit their spacecraft is more economical than vice versa

Might the desire to explore outer space be taken – exploited – as an impetus to genetically modify human beings?  Some of the ideas discussed may ultimately benefit cancer patients.  However, a space exploration rationale to justify modifying the genetics of healthy human beings risks sliding toward viewing persons as mission-specific instrumentality.  It is possible to deflect concerns by noting that we are still a long way from actually fabricating any super-human entities.  At this point it appears clear some scientists are worried about how their work is perceived.


Who Decides?

Is it reasonable to think scientists will suspend their own research to avoid ethical or other dilemmas?  Such actions have occurred in the past, but situations are more complex now (2).  Scientific research has been globalized and democratized by new technologies.  It is also competitive.   


Will we throw the dice and message ET?  Cure cancer and build Lilliputian super-human astronauts?  Be hailed by our descendants as far-sighted or reviled as myopic Frankensteins?  Scientists are signaling that they could use some help deciding how to proceed.                           

(1) D. Oberhaus. 2017.  Next Year, Scientists Will Send Messages to Search for Aliens.  c/net, 13 September 2017.

(2) P. Berg. 2008.  Meetings that Changed the World: Asilomar 1975: DNA Modification Secured.  Nature 455:290-291.

(3) Antonio Regalado.   Engineering the Perfect Astronaut.  MIT Technology Review, 15 April 2017.


Fare Price – The Human in the Small, Gray Spacesuit

Combine the vastness of outer space with speculations about how best to explore it and you may be surprised by one conclusion reached by some scientists – human beings are just too damn big.  Given the probable cramped living area and great expense of accommodations, small-sized astronauts might offer huge advantages (1).  These visionaries suggest the most expedient means to staff space missions will be to manufacture suitable astronauts.

Budget Space Travel

Traversing space will place heavy physical demands on both human explorers and their spacecraft.  Safeguarding the health and well being of astronauts for long periods in hostile conditions might be prohibitively expensive.  Perhaps genetic engineering will make far flung expeditions feasible by enabling the fabrication of astronauts who thrive on restricted diets and tolerate cramped, toxic environmental conditions.

NASA planet

The enormous distances between planets or other destinations will amplify logistics difficulties to mind-boggling dimensions.  Even small factors may have gigantic ultimate downstream consequences.  As an example, think about the impacts of a now classic cost-cutting measure implemented by an airline; removing one olive from salads served to their customers.  Because of the scope and scale of the airline operations, this tiny change may have yielded many thousands of dollars in annual cost savings (2).

Hypothetical Scenarios

Maybe sending astronauts across many millions of miles will necessitate implementing extreme measures such as creating explorers of Lilliputian dimensions.  What if even the smallest astronauts are just too much baggage to fit the budget?  Perhaps would-be astronauts of the future will be told to go on the ride will mean something else must be left behind.  Maybe everyone will have to get by with one eye. 

Who would put up with such outrageous demands?  The Mars One program – a literal one way ticket to the Red Planet – had over 200,000 applicants (3).  Imagine the point of view of a candidate astronaut of the future.  You have already been genetically modified to be of small stature, radiation resistant and able to subsist on sugar water.  At that point what personal price would you deem just too high to pay?  Perhaps there will be other choices and conversations.

“You know, on this mission there will be no call to reproduce and, realistically, no opportunity.  We can harvest and preserve frozen samples for you, so it will be fine to remove your gonads.  Over the life of the mission we calculate that action will produce a savings of…”


A technological fix for every technological problem arising.  So, in for dime, in for a dollar?

What Will Space Travel Cost Us?

Will the desire to leave our home planet be viewed as a compelling argument for the genetic alteration of human beings?  In fairness to scientists pondering how to go about creating the perfect astronaut, no one has proposed removing reproductive organs or eyes, although some of the schemes discussed are radical.  We now face broad questions about if and when genetic manipulation of humans will be permitted.  The issues at hand are complex, but one thing is clear.  Some leading scientists seem to view human life in utilitarian and instrumental terms.  To follow their lead to the stars, what will we need to leave behind? 


(1) Antonio Regalado.   Engineering the Perfect Astronaut.  MIT Technology Review, 15 April 2017.

(2) A. E. Serwer. Business Penny-Pinching Adds Up.




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