Hacking Genes

A recent study from the University of Buffalo has raised some very interesting points, as well as some ethical concerns The researchers were able to wirelessly control a gene in lab-grown tissue. The researchers speculated that this could be used to help cure cancer and some other diseases. While the editing itself is interesting, what is more interesting is the ethical implications of wirelessly controlling genes, as well as the potential for issues that this form of wireless control introduces. Let’s break it down.

These researchers were able to wirelessly control a gene in a lab tissue.  They did this using specialized optic equipment to communicate electrical impulses from a special controller to the gene itself. They did this by implanting tiny photonic implants into the tissue which could be controlled remotely.  The gene they were able to control is believed to itself control about a fifth of the human genome. Thus controlling a gene like this can influence the genome in a massive way.

While all this is very interesting, and I could spend quite a bit of time and ink covering it, I think the more important question is the implications of such research.  The first implication is for medicine. If someone has a chronic illness for example, one of these implants could be put in and it could help control the illness. However, putting one of these implants in also opens up a lot of potential issues.  The first one that comes to mind is the possibility for hacking.  If one of these implants is placed in a patient and controlled wirelessly, it is possible for someone outside the medical profession to hack in and change the function of the implant to negatively impact the health of the patient.  Worse, if a lot of patients are given such implants and a master database is hacked, dozens to hundreds of patients could be compromised.

However, there are further ethical implications of this kind of remote gene control.  It is possible in the future that this could be used for purposes that are less than ethical.  For example, it could be used to control the expression of genes in humans in real-time. The genome contains certain information which is not expressed such as eye color and hair color. If controls like these are implanted, it could be possible, theoretically, to change these traits at will. Now the change would not be instant, but it would occur given enough time.  This would compound the difficulty in catching a criminal for example, as their description, already gleaned from the frightened view of bystanders and likely somewhat inaccurate to begin with, now could be completely irrelevant as the traits could be changed.

However, any genetic editing, by this method or otherwise is somewhat questionable. The specter being raised is the possibility of designer humans.  This is an issue because of the ethical concerns involved. Designing a human with different color hair or eyes, while objectionable because God is the one Who designs and frames humans, would not have lasting detrimental effects on the population.  However, allowing people to design their own children for specialized traits such as being smarter or faster or better looking would have lasting deleterious effects.

In effect, designer genetic editing would create two classes of people: those who could afford to design their children to a societal standard, be it hair color, intellect, whatever, and those who could not. Only the designer children would be able to move up in the world, as they would be sought after for meeting the societal norm. The others would be rejected as outcasts.

If you think this is the plot of a science fiction movie, think again. India has been dominated by a caste system for hundreds of years based on birth. Is it really so shocking to think that genetic editing might do so in the future? Genetic editing could potentially have value. I’m not advocating abandoning it. But I do see some very scary potential implications in the direction it is going. Scientists need to be very careful in their experiments and consider the ethical implications of their decisions.  Just because something can be done, does not mean it ought to be done.



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