Date: Thu 30 Jan 2003 - 19:32:41 GMT
> Genes work just like computer software, says this writer - which is
> why the luddites don't get it, but their children probably will.
> IT IS HARD TO EXAGGERATE the sheer intellectual excitement of
> genetics. What has happened is that genetics has become a branch of
> information technology. The genetic code is truly digital, in exactly
> the same sense as computer codes. This is not some vague analogy, it
> is the literal truth. Moreover, unlike computer codes, the genetic
> code is universal. Modern computers are built around a number of
> mutually incompatible machine languages, determined by their processor
> chips. The genetic code, on the other hand, with a few very minor
> exceptions, is identical in every living creature on this planet, from
> sulphur bacteria to giant redwood trees, from mushrooms to men. All
> living creatures, on this planet at least, are the same “make”.
> The consequences are amazing. It means that a software subroutine
> (that’s exactly what a gene is) can be carried over into another
> species. This is why the famous “antifreeze” gene, originally evolved
> by Antarctic fish, can save a tomato from frost damage. In the same
> way, a Nasa programmer who wants a neat square-root routine for his
> rocket guidance system might import one from a financial spreadsheet.
> A square root is a square root is a square root. A program to compute
> it will serve as well in a space rocket as in a financial projection.
> What, then, of the widespread gut hostility, amounting to revulsion,
> against all such “transgenic” imports? This is based on the
> misconception that it is somehow “unnatural” to splice a fish gene,
> which was only ever “meant” to work in a fish, into the alien
> environment of a tomato cell. Surely an antifreeze gene from a fish
> must come with a fishy “flavour”. Surely some of its fishiness must
> rub off. Yet nobody thinks that a square-root subroutine carries a
> “financial flavour” with it when you paste it into a rocket guidance
> system. The very idea of “flavour” in this sense is not just wrong but
> profoundly and interestingly wrong. It is a cheerful thought, by the
> way, that most young people today understand computer software far
> better than their elders, and they should grasp the point instantly.
> The present Luddism over genetic engineering may die a natural death
> as the computer-illiterate generation is superseded.
> Is there nothing, then, absolutely nothing, in the misgivings of
> Prince Charles, Lord Melchett and their friends? I wouldn’t go that
> far, although they are certainly muddleheaded. The square-root analogy
> might be unfair in the following respect. What if it isn’t a square
> root that the rocket guidance program needs, but another function
> which is not literally identical to the financial equivalent? Suppose
> it is sufficiently similar that the main routine can indeed be
> borrowed, but it still needs tweaking in detail. In that case, it is
> possible that the rocket could misfire if we naively import the
> subroutine raw. Switching back to biology, although genes really are
> watertight subroutines of digital software, they are not watertight in
> their effects on the development of the organism, for here they
> interact with the environment furnished by other genes. The antifreeze
> gene might depend, for optimal effect, on an interaction with other
> genes in the fish. Plonk it down in the fo! reign genetic climate of a
> tomato, and it might not work unless properly tweaked (which can be
> done) to mesh with the existing tomato genes.
> What this means is that there is a case to be made on both sides of
> the argument, and we need to exercise subtle judgment. The genetic
> engineers are right that we can save time and trouble by climbing on
> the back of the millions of years of R & D that Darwinian natural
> selection has put into developing biological antifreeze (or whatever
> we are seeking). But the doomsayers would also have a point if they
> softened their stance from emotional gut rejection to a rational plea
> for rigorous safety testing. No reputable scientist would oppose such
> a plea. It is rightly routine for all new products, not just
> genetically engineered ones.
> A largely unrecognised danger of the obsessive hysteria surrounding
> genetically modified foods is crying wolf. I fear that, if the Green
> movement’s high-amplitude warnings turn out to be empty, people will
> be dangerously disinclined to listen to other more serious warnings.
> The evolution of antibiotic resistance among bacteria is a vicious
> wolf of proven danger. Yet the menacing footfalls of this certain
> peril are all but drowned out in the caterwauling shrieks over
> genetically modified foods, whose dangers are speculative at most. To
> be more precise, genetic modification, like any other kind of
> modification, is good if you modify in a good direction, bad if you
> modify in a bad direction. Like domestic breeding, and like natural
> selection itself, the trick is to introduce the right new DNA
> software. The realisation that software is all it is, written in
> exactly the same language as the organism’s “own” DNA, should go a
> long way towards correcting muddled thinking.
> Then again, as we discover more about the genetic code and the way it
> works, doubters will begin to recognise the potential benefits.
> Building on the Human Genome Project, the Human Genome Diversity
> Project focuses on those relatively few nucleotide sites that vary
> from person to person and from group to group. The implications for
> medical science are enormous.
> Hitherto, almost all medical prescribing has assumed that patients are
> pretty much the same and every disease has an optimal cure. Doctors of
> tomorrow will be more like vets in this respect. Doctors have only one
> species of patient, but in future they will subdivide that species by
> genotype, as a vet subdivides his patients by species. For the special
> needs of blood transfusions, doctors already recognize a few genetic
> typings (OAB, Rh) etc. In the future, every patient’s personal record
> will include the results of numerous genetic tests: not their entire
> genome (that will be too expensive for the foreseeable future) but, as
> the century goes on, an increasing sampling of the variable regions of
> the genome, and far more than the present blood group typings. The
> point is that for some diseases there may be as many different optimal
> treatments as there are different genotypes at a locus — more, even,
> because genetic loci may interact to affect susceptibility to disease.
> Another important use of the genetics of human diversity is forensic.
> Precisely because DNA is digital, like computer bytes, genetic
> fingerprinting is potentially many many orders of magnitude more
> accurate and reliable that any other means of individual
> identification. Moreover, identity can be established from a tiny
> trace of blood, sweat or tears (or spit, semen or hairs).
> DNA evidence is widely regarded as controversial and it is easy to see
> why. Human error can obviously vitiate the accuracy of the method. But
> that is true of all evidence. Courts are already accustomed to taking
> precautions to avoid the muddling up of specimens, and such
> precautions now become even more important. DNA fingerprinting can
> establish, infinitely far beyond all reasonable doubt, whether a smear
> of blood came from a particular individual. But obviously you must
> test the right smear.
> The idea of a nationwide database, in which all citizens’ DNA
> fingerprints would be held, is now being discussed. I don’t see this
> as a sinister, Big Brotherish idea, but many people would want to stop
> well short of a nationwide database because they have something to
> hide, not from the law but from each other. A surprisingly large
> number of people, of all ages, are genetically unrelated to the man
> they think is their father. To put it mildly, it is not clear that to
> disillusion them, with conclusive DNA evidence, would increase the sum
> of human happiness.
> If a national DNA database were in place, it might be hard to control
> unauthorised access to it. If a tabloid newspaper were to discover
> that the official heir to a dukedom was actually sired by the
> gamekeeper, the consternation in the College of Heralds might be
> mildly amusing. But in the population at large it doesn’t take much to
> imagine the family recriminations and private misery that could flow
> from freely available information of true paternity. Nevertheless, the
> existence of a national DNA database wouldn’t alter the situation
> much. It is already perfectly feasible for a jealous husband, say, to
> take a saliva or blood sample from one of his supposed children and
> compare it with his own, to confirm his suspicion that he is not the
> real father. What the national database could add is a swift computer
> search to find out who, out of all the males in the entire country,
> The study of human diversity will bring other radical changes to the
> way we manage our lives. It is possible that, by the end of the 21st
> century, doctors will be able accurately to predict the manner and
> time of death of everybody, from the day they are conceived. At
> present this can be achieved only for possessors of genes such as
> Huntington’s Chorea, a horrible disease which waits till early middle
> age before killing you. For the rest of us, all that is possible is
> the vague statistical forecast of the life insurance actuary, based on
> our smoking and drinking habits and a quick listen through a
> stethoscope. The whole life insurance business depends upon such
> forecasts being vague and statistical. Those who die old subsidise
> (the heirs of) those who die young. If the day comes when
> deterministic forecasting becomes universal, life insurance as we know
> it will collapse.
> That problem is soluble (presumably by universal compulsory life
> insurance with no individual medical risk assessment). What will be
> less easy to solve is the angst which will hang over everyone’s
> psychology. As things are now, we all know we are going to die, but
> most of us don’t know when, so it doesn’t feel like a death sentence.
> That may change, and society should be prepared for difficulties as
> people struggle to adjust their psychologies to it.
> This message was posted by kharin to the Virus 2003 board on Church of
> Virus BBS.
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