Sunday, February 7, 2010

EEEK! Synthetic Organisms From DARPA!

"Pentagon Looks to Breed Immortal 'Synthetic Organisms,' Molecular Kill-Switch Included"
Danger Room, Wired (February 5, 2010)

"The Pentagon's mad science arm may have come up with its most radical project yet. Darpa is looking to re-write the laws of evolution to the military's advantage, creating 'synthetic organisms' that can live forever — or can be killed with the flick of a molecular switch.

"As part of its budget for the next year, Darpa is investing $6 million into a project called BioDesign, with the goal of eliminating 'the randomness of natural evolutionary advancement.' The plan would assemble the latest bio-tech knowledge to come up with living, breathing creatures that are genetically engineered to 'produce the intended biological effect.' Darpa wants the organisms to be fortified with molecules that bolster cell resistance to death, so that the lab-monsters can 'ultimately be programmed to live indefinitely.'

"Of course, Darpa's got to prevent the super-species from being swayed to do enemy work — so they'll encode loyalty right into DNA, by developing genetically programmed locks to create 'tamper proof' cells. Plus, the synthetic organism will be traceable, using some kind of DNA manipulation, 'similar to a serial number on a handgun.' And if that doesn't work, don't worry. In case Darpa's plan somehow goes horribly awry, they're also tossing in a last-resort, genetically-coded kill switch:...."

The Wired article does a fairly good job of discussing the DARPA research: mostly clarifying what scientists think is so about evolution, and the remarkable difficulty biologists have had, trying to figure out why organisms die - and how to prevent it.

What's lacking is a clear picture of just what these bugs are supposed to do.

I'll skip the standard-issues stuff about the evils of science and soldiers and technology. You've probably heard it all before.

About what DARPA may have in mind for the synthetic organisms: I can think of quite a few applications, besides the tired old 'biological warfare' scenario.

For example, bioluminescence could be used to provide nightime displays with negligible power requirements. I know: we don't have control panels with living displays. Today. In my youth, we didn't have liquid crystal displays, either.

Then, a more strictly military application: what about something the size of a grain of pollen, that turns a bright orange when it lands on petrochemicals? Spray that over a road, and you might be able to get an idea of how many vehicles drove over it - and how recently.

That' all speculation, of course.

New Technology is Scary Technology

These DARPA synthetic organisms are new - and, therefore, to some, scary - technology. I figure, once news of this gets around, some American movie maker will dust off "The Satan Bug" (1965) and scare even more people.
Synthetic Organisms? Say Hello to Fido
But humans creating synthetic organisms? We've been doing that for over 10,000 years. We can do it faster and more accurately now: but that's a difference of degree, not of kind.

Dogs have been around for upwards of 14,000 years. And, although I think coincidences can happen - I really don't think it was by chance that a mutant wolf showed up that wasn't as bright as the average wolf just simply doted on humans. I think dogs are first-rate hunting companions and guardians for a reason.

Synthetic Organisms? Been There, Done That

Dogs? Synthetic? Let's see what "synthetic" means: "not of natural origin; prepared or made artificially..." (Princeton's WordNet) I'll grant that the jury's still out on exactly how wolves turned into dogs. Some researchers are holding out for the idea that those primitive people who didn't go to college couldn't possibly have done something smart.

I'm a scholar my nature: and went through college. Twice. Almost three times. (That's another story.) I acknowledge that some people with degrees are smart and capable. I also think that people don't have to have letters after their names to be competent and creative. They don't even have to wear lab coats. (See "Hard Science Fiction, Cultural Blinders and Laban's Sheep," Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space (October 29, 2009))

Then there's the matter of frankenfood. Genetically engineered food is scaring some folks silly these days. Which is odd, when you consider that most people have been eating genetically altered food for maybe 8,000 years now. (There's a reason why domestic turkeys are so buff and stupid.)

Almost-related posts:More:

2 comments:

Brigid said...

I think you meant "synthetic" in the title.

Also: "I'm a scholar my nature" and the extra comma after "names" in the same paragraph.

And cool stuff.

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian, aka Nanoc, aka Norski said...

Brigid,

Aargh.

Thanks!

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