Genes by email – hazard or hope? (by Alex Leslie)

Alex Leslie was founder and CEO of the Global Billing Association (GBA), a trade body focused on the communications sector.  During the ten years of the GBA as an independent association he guided it through times of enormous change, challenge and opportunity for the communications industry.  He is widely published in communications magazines around the world.

dna-pictures1We tend to believe that we live in an age of awesome change.  Yet compared to the changes that have happened over the last one hundred years, some would say that we simply live in a world that is faster, smaller and cheaper.

There have been no inventions to rival the car in the last ten years, or the personal computer, or space travel.  There is however one area that is as exciting as it is frightening – it is where technology meets biology.  Two years ago scientists successfully ‘laser’ printed deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) on to sheets of cellular material.  Essentially they printed life.

Since then technology has gone further.  Now scientists and computer experts have worked out how to translate DNA into binary and back again.  The first reaction to this might be that this is theoretical and fascinating.  However, it does place the world of biotechnology under a spotlight where the contrast between light and dark is very marked and deeply worrying.

On the light side you can now, for instance, translate the DNA of wheat into binary, email it to, say Mars, print it out and thus grow wheat on Mars.

In a few years’ time the maker of a beer in Australia could send via email the DNA of his particular yeast recipe.  This would make the setting up of a new operation in the UK for example a lot easier and, presumably, a lot cheaper.  It would also be possible to add extra elements to the recipe – perhaps the DNA for squalene for example.

Squalene is a vital and hugely expensive element of the cosmetics industry that is found in sharks’ liver.  Unfortunately it is tricky to harvest without being unkind to sharks.  So … why not simply print out the DNA and then add it to the recipe for yeast?  That will mean that when the yeast is re-grown by the brewer the squalene can be harvested whilst the beer remains in production.  The profits from the squalene can then be used to pay for the brewery.dna-pictures3

It seems that the only limit will be our imagination – but imagination is both light and dark.  The ability to add elements to DNA before growing it or sending it round the world leads us to the dark side of the equation.  If we can translate and manipulate DNA with computers it means that we can hack DNA and, in so doing, we can create monsters.

It means we could ‘weaponise’ flu or Ebola and then email it to our agents in target countries.  Border agencies, already facing the challenge of weapons that might be produced by 3D printer,  would be rendered impotent.

Breakthroughs such as this combination of DNA and email are as frightening as they are impressive.  Let us hope that the balance of mankind’s imagination leans towards the light.

Photogragphs courtesy of  www.all-about-forensic-science.com

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