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Biology Help Desk: Volume 3

Samantha Wright (1324923) writes | more than 2 years ago

User Journal 10

I've received another request for one of these, so I figured that I would put it up. Since they only last about two weeks, please feel free to track me down and ask for a new one if you ever have a question!

I've received another request for one of these, so I figured that I would put it up. Since they only last about two weeks, please feel free to track me down and ask for a new one if you ever have a question!

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Questions on genetic engineering (2)

DaleGlass (1068434) | more than 2 years ago | (#38154808)

Hi! Thanks a lot for this great opportunity. Hope it's not too much to ask several questions at once.

I've recently been involved in a discussion on this subject, so several questions came up:

1. Is genetic engineering on the level of creating catgirls, cabbits [wikipedia.org] and such possible with current technology? I'm guessing that given all the progress and existence of things like glowing fish and GM food, it's probably doable, and the only reason such things don't exist yet is due to ethical and economical reasons. Put in another way, how far could one get into mad scientist territory if ignoring all rules was possible?

2. Are there limits to gene therapy? If one can artificially create something like the above, is it possible to make an existing organism rebuild itself into the same shape? I understand that it's probably not been attempted, but are there any known limits past which something of the sort wouldn't be worth trying?

For instance, as somebody with an interest in photography, I think it'd be very neat to be able to improve my vision and become a tetrachromat [wikipedia.org] , or gain the ability to see IR or UV. Can gene therapy get something like that done?

3. What is your opinion on DIYbio [wikipedia.org] ?

Thanks!

Re:Questions on genetic engineering (2)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | more than 2 years ago | (#38155600)

1. We don't know nearly enough about morphological and developmental genes to be able to create a complex hybrid of two distant species. In terms of pure needle-and-DNA-replication technology, we have so far been unsuccessful in "booting up" a synthetic cell more complex than the absolute minimal bacterium.

2. "Rebuilding" is impossible as you describe it, and probably will be for many, many years. Once the body's cells mature into a specific role, they stay put and adopt a certain shape. Reversing that process (stem cells from adult cells) to the exact right stage necessary to let them restructure without going so far as to be too undeveloped to know what's going on is, without a doubt, a more complex task than actually designing an animal's normal developmental pathways from scratch. Not all is hopeless; geckos can grow their tails back because they keep extra stem cells around.

3. Very cool, but very primitive. I've actually done synthetic biology before, and I've even used some DIYbio protocols, although it was in a professional lab.

Re:Questions on genetic engineering (1)

tibit (1762298) | more than 2 years ago | (#38169300)

Isn't the real deal that we don't know how much of genetic information is actually encoded? We have no clue, for example, how to, let's say, change a chosen dimension of our body. So while we can sequence things, and dice-and-splice, we're mostly doing that in the dark, without knowing the exact meaning of a lot of the information? Of course there are certain recipes that simply encode proteins, so if we find a recipe for a protein somewhere in the genetic material, we can change it to make a different one. But a lot of the information does not -- and correct me if I'm wrong -- encode simple things like proteins. Or perhaps if it does, the proteins may be short lived and part of a very complex wetware "program" that uses various proteins at various points in time, to regulate cell growth, gene expression, etc. I may be entirely wrong here, so I'd like to hear a less misinformed explanation of how far are we really w.r.t. to bridging the gap between the raw genetic data (the "contents" of DNA) and the behavior and appearance of the resulting organism (even if just a cell).

Re:Questions on genetic engineering (1)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | more than 2 years ago | (#38171270)

The human body isn't specified as a 3D model—it's more like a structural induction. We produce components X, Y, and Z at times A, B, and C, and because they have connectors P, Q, and R, electrostatic interactions cause them to spontaneously assemble into a specific final shape. At this point, we know the expression patterns for most of the body's genes (what turns them on and when and for how long), but there's still a large fraction of genes for which we don't know the function. Many of these are probably relevant to the overall structure of the body, but only in little pieces.

Re:Questions on genetic engineering (1)

tibit (1762298) | more than 2 years ago | (#38174762)

Thank you! That's exactly the insight I was looking for. I gather, then, that real progress in this area will require that we create tools that can work both ways between a 3D model and the inductive representation. So, starting with information in the genome, we extract the inductive representation (the pieces, the connectors, interdependencies, etc), and from that we show how it'll look in 3D. And then, we do changes to the 3D model, and the steps get reversed. At this point it's probably a pipe dream, but before we can call us genetic engineers, we'll have to have those tools. And, eventually, just like circuit design and other CAD tools turned from $100k behemoths to consumer-priced tools, those genetic tools will, eventually, become a mainstay of the hacker/maker culture. My expectation is that 200 years is the timeframe ;) Good luck holding me accountable on that one, though.

Re:Questions on genetic engineering (1)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | more than 2 years ago | (#38175000)

It's definitely a very far ways off—but two centuries might be a little far. I'd say more like sixty years. We'll probably have protein folding cracked in half that time; and, at that point, everyday computers will be advanced enough that running the sufficient scale of molecular dynamics calculations shouldn't be that big a deal. The push toward in silico biology has been an on-going one, since there's no chance of experimental error, and, down the road, we might even be able to avoid the tricky ethics of animal experimentation. While the Spore-like carving tools you describe aren't the priority at present, they'd be inevitable once we had a sufficiently fast way of visualizing an organism based on comprehension of its full genome.

Re:Questions on genetic engineering (1)

tibit (1762298) | more than 2 years ago | (#38176598)

It took a 100 years to "crack" something fairly simple in comparison -- computer-based E.E. and mechanical modeling had most of theory done way before then. I claim it'll be no earlier than 200 years from now. We can make a $100 bet, publicly documented here on /., and our great-great-great-grandkids can then settle it. The web never forgets ;) Heck, if I lose the bet, that's all for the better!

won't ever cheaper biotech (1)

decora (1710862) | more than 2 years ago | (#38155692)

lead inevitably to DIY biological weapons?

Re:won't ever cheaper biotech (1)

Samantha Wright (1324923) | more than 2 years ago | (#38160430)

Sure—just like DIY explosives. Like any field, regulation will probably be inevitable to prevent such things. That being said, making a biological weapon requires a lot of specialist knowledge, and the pathogens one can engineer in most labs aren't very good at evading the body.

Re:won't ever cheaper biotech (1)

damn_registrars (1103043) | more than 2 years ago | (#38166794)

As a biochemist myself, I would like to point out that making a biological weapon is not a trivial matter. I think we would likely see DIY chemical weapons before DIY biological weapons. It is pretty easy to make mustard gas or sarin gas into an aerosol and harm people with it. It is actually quite difficult to take something like smallpox and make it into a weapon without hurting yourself.

From my vantage point I think we'll see biological suicide attackers before we'll see DIY biological weapons. And even then it comes down to selecting the right agent; some agents that get a lot of attention (Anthrax being a good example) are not particularly contagious.
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