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Friday, May 08, 2015

Creating DNA sequences has gotten easier, and some people think we need to be careful.

National Public Radio reports on a new technique for making sequences of DNA to order, apparently relatively quickly and easily, if you have the right equipment and know what you are doing. The report, and the company itself, use the term DNA printing. It isn't printing, in the usual sense. The only item on the company's web site seems to be a video, nearly 6 minutes long, about a CNN reporter, who had his DNA "hacked" by the company, as a demonstration of what they think they can do.

The CEO/chief scientist of the company, Cambrian Genetics, said a number of interesting things in the CNN report. I will mention two:

The ability to safely insert a DNA sequence into an adult, or any other cell, has not appeared yet.

Austen Heinz implied strongly that, when we can safely do this, we will have an ethical obligation to fix their DNA. That's worth an argument, I think.

The NPR report says: "But Heinz envisions a day when mass-produced DNA can genetically engineer people — or let anyone use DNA like computer code to design their own organisms." Again, that last part seems to be worth an argument.

I know -- we have been selecting organisms for different characteristics for centuries -- think dogs, for one example. So what's the big deal? Well maybe there isn't one. But consider: a terrorist might be able to produce an organism designed to destroy wiring, or pass on disease, or attack people. A lone geek might produce an organism which does something obnoxious, like digging holes in people's lawns, and is also resistant to poisons and disease, or is difficult to kill with traps or guns. Designing one's own organisms might lead to a lot of animal suffering by the products, if they were poorly designed, and, organisms being quite complex, poor design should occur all too often.

When dogs, or cows, were selected for some particular characteristics, it took a long time, maybe more than one human generation. There was time to assess the result. It also took a lot of effort. Usually, more than one person, or tribe, or family, was involved. There was at least a little consideration and discussion. If this technology becomes widely available, there are serious potential dangers.

See here for a report on different techniques, but which raises similar issues.

And all long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of early generations over later ones. - C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man. HarperOne, 2015 paperback edition, p. 57. (Originally published in 1943)

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