Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Weird question: human ability to program DNA

  1. May 14, 2007 #1
    are we anywhere near understanding DNA well enough to "program" a new species. say, programing a cell to grow into an animal with specific traits.

    I know similar things are done to a certain extent with genetically modified foods and animals (or on mosquitoes and flies); I know we know enough to manipulate the genetic code, but are we anywhere near being able to "speak" in the language of DNA?

    would this ever be possible?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 15, 2007 #2
    a whole animal? unless it's a very simple single celled one - but even then, I'm gonna say no. we could probably greatly modify an existing one, but construct a whole new one? from scratch? there is really only a very small percentage of DNA whose complete function and/or whose product's complete function is actually well understood.
  4. May 15, 2007 #3


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Our genetic technology presently just involves snipping bits of DNA from one place, putting them somewhere else, and watching what happens. This in itself is incredibly difficult. We're basically at the stage of reverse-engineering DNA to see what pieces are required for something we'd recognize as life.

    Once we understand how nearly all the genes work together to create a living organism, we should be able to build organisms from scratch, essentially, by deciding exactly what DNA we want in the organism's genome.

    We already have the technical apparatus to make pieces of DNA with any code we want; we just don't understand exactly what codes to use to make a custom organism from scratch.

    Give it another fifty years.

    - Warren
  5. May 15, 2007 #4
    cool thanks. yea I didn't mean right now, I just wondered if it was possible or if there was any natural law which would prevent this. I guess there isn't... freaky.

    with all the controversy cause by stem cells and cloning a mouse, I can only imagine what will happen once we reach that point... well, as long as I get to own an elf, I'm happy.
  6. May 15, 2007 #5


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    A few more thoughts --

    We already have the technology to create viruses containing whatever genes we want. Viruses are inert by themselves, though -- they need some existing cells to replicate and be considered a form of 'life.'

    I personally suspect it'll be another fifty years before we have the technology to engineer a complete single-celled organism with the ability to replicate all by itself, but I think we'll have a very wide assortment of ethical issues to overcome before anyone will attempt it. I presume it will be a sort of 'toy' life, not capable of finding its own food or being able to adapt to its environment. It'll probably be permanently on the single-celled equivalent of "life support."

    I suspect it'll be another 150 years or more before we will have the technology to engineer a complete organism that could actually thrive in a natural environment, like a Jurassic Park with custom monsters.

    Such a concept is certainly deeply scary. Fortunately, like all forms of technology, it could have many beneficial uses. Imagine mankind designing a new species of "bacteria," intended to be symbionts that live within our bodies. These custom bacteria could theoretically prevent or reverse many, many illnesses. They could kill cancer cells; they could replace pancreatic islet cells in diabetics. They could serve as bridges between the broken halves of a paralyzed person's spine... the list goes on. These custom cells would be like a generalization of stem cells -- not only could they do anything natural human cells can do, they could do anything else we could dream up for them to do.

    - Warren
  7. May 15, 2007 #6
    I choose to not know that. Ignorance is not only bliss, but biological-warfare free.

    I didn't really think of all those benefits, that would definitely be a very different world... if we ever get to that point, I hope you're right and that these are the uses we put to our knowledge.

    My biggest moral concern is the same as with artificial intelligence (something we might be a bit closer to creating). It's not with the actual creation of sentient beings, but with all the "failures" leading up to it.

    Before we ever create an intelligent, feeling computer, for example, there are sure to be many failures... many of them will have to be terminated (killed really), and many might suffer terrible because of our mistakes creating them.

    This is pure science fiction right now, so it's not a question we have to deal with, but if we are ever able to create an animal or an emotional/intelligent computer, what gives us the right to bring a being into a life of misery?

    I also choose to not know about animal testing, of course.
  8. May 15, 2007 #7


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Choosing to remain ignorant only leads you to assume the worst it seems. I don't really know why you'd want to remain ignorant. Even if you really think there are only nefarious reasons to use something, wouldn't it be better to understand it so you could intelligently discuss it?

    Right now, inserting snippets of DNA or RNA into viruses is a very powerful tool in research. We use the natural ability of the viruses to get into cells and insert their DNA/RNA into the host cell as a delivery system. Viruses can be very specific about what types of cells they preferentially infect, which means you can directly target the cell types of interest and not every cell in the body. Right now, it's mostly a tool to get genes that express things like green fluorescent protein or other visual markers into cells so we can trace them in the whole animal. In neuroscience, this has led to great improvements in the ability to map neural networks. The long-term goal is to develop these approaches into therapeutic tools for gene delivery into malfunctioning cells.
  9. May 15, 2007 #8
    This reminds me of a song by Phil Collins "turn It Off".

    Just because you ignore it doesn't mean it isn't happening.

    Moonbear and Chroot,

    If we create this type of technology, isn't it feasible to create something opposite of a virus? A cure for any thing is feasible if we can build it from the ground up. That would have many pros, but if we make it, we could eliminate any side effects.
  10. May 15, 2007 #9
    lol I was joking about that.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook