Friday, May 9, 2014

Technology is hard to define and sometimes a little frightening

I don't even know what technology is anymore, and that's weird given that my career is being a Technical Support Specialist. I guess I should clarify my statement. I know an iPad is technology. I also know that a computer is technology. But I failed to recognize Tesla as a technology company. I thought it was a car company. I have been corrected on this though. Tesla is a "tech" stock and not an "auto" stock like Ford or GM. Who knew?
Tesla Model S cockpit. It's not a car. It's technology.
Then their's Under Armour. Under Armour is not an apparel stock like Nike, even though Nike is the one it gets compared to most often. Nope, Under Armor is also a "technology" stock.

So I guess I shouldn't be confused about biological technology either. I read in Nature (the international weekly journal of science) about a semi-synthetic organism with an expanded genetic alphabet. If you're confused, here's a quote from the article that you can locate HERE:

"Organisms are defined by the information encoded in their genomes, and since the origin of life this information has been encoded using a two-base-pair genetic alphabet (A–T and G–C). In vitro, the alphabet has been expanded to include several unnatural base pairs (UBPs). We have developed a class of UBPs formed between nucleotides bearing hydrophobic nucleobases, exemplified by the pair formed between d5SICS and dNaM (d5SICS–dNaM), which is efficiently PCR-amplified and transcribed in vitro, and whose unique mechanism of replication has been characterized. However, expansion of an organism’s genetic alphabet presents new and unprecedented challenges: the unnatural nucleoside triphosphates must be available inside the cell; endogenous polymerases must be able to use the unnatural triphosphates to faithfully replicate DNA containing the UBP within the complex cellular milieu; and finally, the UBP must be stable in the presence of pathways that maintain the integrity of DNA."

To make a long story short, scientists have taken a plasmid and given it three base pairs. In nature, there are only two base pairs made of adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G). Let me make this clear: everything in the world...the entire "tree of life" that Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about on born out of information encoded on differing arrangements of those "building block" bases. And science has just introduced two "new" bases and made pairs with them.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is technology. I seriously feel like quoting Steve Jobs right now. I know, I know, I've been on a Steve Jobs tear lately but the man had so many good things to say. So indulge me. Here's the quote: "Older people sit down and ask, 'What is it?" but the boy asks, 'What can I do with it?"

I feel like an old man here because not only am I asking "what is it?" but I'm a little afraid of the answer. And there's no part of me that wants to ask, "What can I do with it?" These third base pairs don't have any information on them. They are a blank slate waiting for scientists to encode whatever they would like to encode on them. Sure, scientists claim that by expanding the genetic alphabet, more data can lead to the development of new drugs, diagnostic tools, vaccines, and nanomaterials. And science fiction is replete with examples of fictional characters making claims like this. But from reading science fiction, we also know that something like this could also lead to weapons. Seriously, it's literally a tired old trope to have the military show up in some scientific lab and pose the question, "How can this be weaponized?"

I am reminded of J. Robert Oppenheimer, American physicist and man who is known as the father of the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer speaking in a 1965 television broadcast about the moments following the Trinity atomic bomb test said, "We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another." You should watch this video because you can feel that he's not exactly happy about this. That's probably because he knew what he'd just done: ended the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
When the United States dropped "Little Boy" on Hiroshima on the morning of August 6th, 1945, the Japanese had no idea what had happened. All communication with that city just ended. The fate of Hiroshima was a complete mystery until they had someone fly over there in an airplane to look out a window and tell them what they saw. Remember Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park? "Yeah. Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn't stop to think if they should."

In an article on io9 about this invention, author George Dvorsky said that the unnatural DNA has a built-in safety mechanism; the modified plasmid can only survive if it's fed artificial nucleotides required to replicate the DNA. My skepticism rears its ugly head in this gif:
I admit that my knowledge of genetics is puny. But some kinds of technology scare me because I don't understand them. That (and to be honest) there's a part of me that's learned to distrust humanity in general. Best intentions often go awry, and the world does not have a shortage of psychopaths the last time I checked.
The Deacon alien from "Prometheus", a biologically engineered weapon.


  1. I have a line in my latest sci-fi where the scientist says something along the lines of, "Because it can happen, it will happen." It doesn't really matter if something might be bad to do; if one side decides not to do it because they foresee dire consequences, another side out there will surely go ahead and still do it, so all you really accomplish is to fall behind them in the race. Sad, perhaps, but true. Our kids will end up cyborgs as long as global warming doesn't kill us first!

  2. Not sure I'd want the answer either, although we need to know what they intend to do with it. And you're right, it could be used both in a good way and a bad way.

  3. I did not know that about Tesla or Under Armor.

    And yet, i definitely think sometimes it's scary. Shit i think sometimes everything is scary and i wonder if it's a sign of the times or if people have always felt this way?

  4. People always find a way to use things for evil. Probably three seconds after the World Wide Web debuted someone was thinking of how to use it to sell porn or con people out of their savings.

    I wonder if they can make this artificial DNA give me awesome claws and healing power like Wolverine? Now there's a practical application.

  5. Humans are capable of so much good and so much bad. And you cant fight it off by stifling technology (the dark ages anyone?) We just have to find some way to deal with the dark part of ourselves, i guess.

  6. I've always felt sorry for Oppenheimer and the way this government kicked him to the curb after getting what they wanted out of him.

  7. It's the writer's job to see this stuff and tell the cautionary tale.

  8. I can imagine Oppenheimer's regret. It's so fortunate we've been able to have such great relations with Japan after the horrors from both sides during WWII

  9. If your knowledge of genetics is puny, then mine is microscopic. But I understood your post enough to know that for all the good scientific advances can give the human race, there are still too many humans who can't be trusted.

  10. michael crichton was a genius with that statement - "...but they never stopped to think if they should."

    goes with the age old, don't ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.

    very though-provoking post!

  11. I'll share this post with my scientist husband see what he thinks.