A Different Sort Of Sharing

August 31, 2012 § 1 Comment

Transformation is the process by which competent bacteria take up foreign plasmid DNA from their surroundings and incorporate it into their own genome. If, sometime in the near future, it were possible to alter the human genomic structure or develop vectors to allow such a process to occur, the implications would be enormous. Not only could physical diseases and handicaps be eradicated, but psychological illnesses could also potentially be wiped out. Physical diseases such as cancer, which has its origins in DNA mutations, could be prevented if the body took up non-cancerous DNA from the “environment” (i.e., a lab, possibly) and replaced the cancerous cells’ DNA with the new non-cancerous DNA. The obesity problem could also be solved if genetic makeup played a very large role in one’s weight problem. Psychological illnesses such as depression could become less prevalent. For example, if someone were depressed because he or she felt that everyone was so much better-looking, he or she could simply “take up” the DNA that codes for specific traits and express those traits. That person would then feel more confident, and voila! Problem solved.

However, there could also be many negative implications, which is exactly why a book written about this subject would be so interesting. A major problem with this would be if everybody found the same traits attractive, and as a result, had very similar DNA. Then, a mysterious disease could sweep through and take the lives of almost everyone on the planet because of their near-identical DNA. The world would become a barren wasteland populated by few roaming peoples who would eventually rebuild civilization as they knew it. More traits could come into the gene pool through mutation over time, and then history would repeat itself.

Because gene therapy is such a rapidly expanding field, it is plausible that scientists could soon find a way to incorporate human traits into vectors in order to transfer them between humans. After all, this seems like such a small step away from inserting healthy DNA into viruses to cure diseases like cystic fibrosis. A major theme of science fiction is the relationship between human innovation and human folly; messing with people’s DNA and “playing God,” if you will, seems both innovative and foolish—a perfect premise for a science fiction story.

Yiran

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§ One Response to A Different Sort Of Sharing

  • Rahul Pathak says:

    While the idea of curing genetic diseases is certainly very intriguing and tantalizing, one major problem with the solution of transferring DNA from an external source is that the DNA would usually have to be transferred to not just one, but literally billions or trillions of cells (in the case of an adult human) for this cure to be effective. Also, the gene must be actually expressed; that is, it must properly undergo transcription, translation and all the other processes that convert the information stored in the genetic code into an actual product (protein) that plays an active role in body function.
    I’m not sure how effective genetic treatment would be in preventing psychological disorders, since the etiology of many of these diseases is not well understood. They also have a factor of environmental causation or there is some problem with the patient’s perception, which would not necessarily be resolved with genetic treatment. For example, patients suffering from anorexia nervosa often believe themselves to be overweight when in fact they actually are underweight from the perspective of a third party as well as objective measurements (i.e BMI). Therefore, someone suffering from clinical depression because of self-image issues might not necessarily benefit significantly from a DNA “transplant” that codes for traits that make him/her better looking. Another issue with this is that we simply don’t know all the effects genetic transplants can have in the body. For example, the same gene can result in multiple different phenotypes (pleiotropy), so the same DNA sequence that codes for good looks could also potentially result in decreased liver function. In this scenario, risk/benefit analysis is imperative, and since risks are unknown, I believe gene therapy will only be used when there is no other alternative. I think that genetic treatment, at least in the foreseeable future, will only be widely used in cases such as sickle-cell anemia, where there is a specific genetic mutation that can be precisely traced to a specific physiological defect and is known not to have any other effect.
    Also in the case of people incorporating very similar DNA because they find the same traits attractive, it should be noted that humans already have near-identical DNA (I think the human genome is somewhere around 99.8 percent identical). This makes us very susceptible as it is to such a “mysterious disease” as you describe.

    -pacopal

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