January 29, 2013

It's In The DNA

An earlier post discussed synthetic biology, which is building new biological entities or redesigning existing ones. According to the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, what makes synthetic biology different from the biology you learned in high school is "the focus on the design and construction of core components (parts of enzymes, genetic circuits, metabolic pathways, etc.) that can be modeled, understood, and tuned to meet specific performance criteria, and the assembly of these smaller parts and devices into larger integrated systems that solve specific problems."

How would this work? A recent story in Science News offers a glimpse into the possibilities that lie ahead. The article describes the successful efforts of a group of researchers from the European Bioinformatics Institute in England to store information on synthetic DNA. Without going into a lot of detail, they converted five files -- all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets (a text file), Watson and Crick’s classic 1953 paper describing the structure of DNA (a PDF), a color photograph (a JPEG) and a 26-second excerpt from Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech (an MP3) -- into bits of triplet code comprised of 0, 1,and 2. They then converted that code into a code using the four nucleotides that comprise all DNA.

Once they had their code, the researchers sent it the folks at Agilent Technologies in Santa Clara, Calif. They used the code to "build millions upon millions of DNA molecules, which they sent back to the researchers via FedEx in a test tube inside a cardboard box." When the researches in England received the test tube filled with DNA, they sequenced it and recreated their original files without any transcription errors.

I'm not going to pretend I understand all the ins and outs of this, but the implications are pretty clear. Consider that a single gram of DNA can hold about as much "information" as 1,000,000 CD's. As a form of data storage, DNA has a lot of potential. It lasts for 50 years and is a form of storage that is not likely to go obsolete, a continuing problem especially for archivists seeking to preserve historically significant material.

But let's allow our imagination to wander freely for a moment. DNA is what is inside every living cell. DNA is the ultimate in compatible storage mediums with the human brain. It is not to hard to envision this future scene unfolding in a doctor's office:
"Good morning. My name is Dr. Smith. You are here for some prenatal counseling?"

"Yes, doctor. My husband and I want our child to have the best chance he or she can in life."

"Well, folks, you've come to the right place. We have a variety of DNA memory tools that can give your child a big head start on life, if you'll pardon the pun."

"Tell us how this works, Dr. Smith. We've seen the ads on television., but it's still a bit confusing ... and maybe a little scary."

"There's nothing to be afraid of. The material we will be injecting into your fetus ... using techniques that have been around for decades ... is identical to the DNA he was endowed with at conception. We will just be adding a few snippets to augment his future talents."

"Could you be more specific?"

"Certainly. Suppose you pick our humanities package, a very popular choice from among the many we have available. The DNA we add will contain every major classic work in literature, music and art ... from the complete works of Shakespeare to all of Mozart to the complete works of the French impressionists."

"Will our child have all these works instantly memorized, is that how it works?"

"Well, of course, results vary with each child, but the idea isn't to give the child a photographic memory, although that has happened in some cases. The usual effect has been to enhance the learning process by a subtle but markedly increased ability to absorb information about these works because they will feel as if he was born knowing them. Which, in fact the child was."

"So if he takes piano lessons, he will still have to learn how to play the piano and he will still have to learn a particular piece, but it will come much more quickly?"

 Is this a possible future? I don't know, and I doubt that anyone else does, either. What I do know is that researchers are busily opening a multitude of Pandora's Boxes and leaving it up to us to deal with whatever pops out. We have no processes designed to view the flow of discoveries as dots that are self-connecting, no way to collectively say "Whao, there, maybe we ought to slow down a bit," no ethical structures to help us figure out the line between "this is a good thing" and "just because we can do it doesn't mean we should do it."

Part of me wishes I could live long enough to see the amazing new future that is emerging from research facilities around the globe.  I have a feeling that Human 1.0 is about to meet  Human 2.0. At the same time, a part of me clings even harder to the memory of a much simpler past, even though that past was itself another generation's future of promise and disappointment waiting to unfold. Such is the human condition, at least as it stands for now.

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