Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Suicide Genes And My Conspiratorial Mind

There are some DNA sequences so dangerous that they don't exist. Call them "suicide genes":

http://email.newscientist.com/cgi-bin1/DM/y/n1cA0MXCX60XrF0DdEM0E3

No, I'm not talking about some genetic propensity that, if you have these genes, will make you want to take a swan dive off the Grand Canyon. I'm talking about genes that are so lethal that no organism can survive if they have them. Most likely their protein products bound some essential part of cellular mechanism. A researcher at Boise State University has created a computer program to calculate all the possible nucleotide sequences possible in the human genome. So far, he has found 86 sequences of 11 nucleotides in length which have never been reported. The thought is that random mutation over the eons may have created these genes, but because they killed the developing embryo before birth, the mutation didn't "stick" in our species. Of course, the absence of these genes from the modern human genome may not mean the developing embryos with these genes died before birth, it just means the individuals didn't live to reproduction. How do we know, I ask? Maybe the "suicide genes" just make someone so butt ugly no one would mate with them! I could think of one or two individuals these researchers forgot to screen.

Now, calling them "suicide genes" is really very hypothetical. The only way to tell if they would cause a cell to die is to transfect the sequences into the DNA of living cells or organisms (humans?), which he hasn't done to my knowledge. But should we? For that matter, I ask, is it _ethical_ to explore this issue?

The Department of Defense has gotten involved by funding the research (a million bucks, no less). They say it is "to develop a DNA 'safety tag' that could be added to voluntary DNA reference samples in criminal cases to distinguish them from forensic samples." That would be nice, but wouldn't careful labeling of tubes be sufficient?

No, my conspiratorial little mind thinks they have other plans. Since when is the DoD interested in altruism? Imagine if you could somehow insert these "suicide genes" into living humans. Modern medicine is closing in on viral therapies which could do the trick. Just inhale some viruses that can transfect your cells. Better yet, attach sequences to the suicide genes that activate them only under certain conditions. Murder on command!

Do I hear a mad scientist in the wings? Mwa ha ha ha….

1 comment:

Maggie said...

Sometimes your conspiratorial mind scares me. Not necessarily because of the conclusions you come to, but becuase its not wholly unthinkable.