The Squishy Sciences

Also stinky, and bitey, and often toxic… Biology and chemistry are not usually what come to mind when you start to talk about science fiction. But for me they are the most familiar sciences. I couldn’t calculate an orbital escape trajectory from Jupiter to save my life… But when someone on the book of face asks about CRISPR and why humans aren’t extinct yet, I can comment on that. And I plan to write about it, in time and when my life settles into something approaching routine. Might be a few months.

In the meantime, I will muse on a few topics that may be of interest to other writers. We do not yet have the ability to line-edit our genome. Or that of any other organism, for that matter. Using CRISPR/Cas9, we can knock out genes, we can use RNAi to knock genes down, and we can force genes/cells to overexpress, all of which are handy tools in the bioengineer’s lab. Add to that an attitude like one of my genetics professors, who was talking on this subject, bouncing around at the front of the lecture hall. He stopped, threw his hands out wide and proclaimed “I don’t care if it is right or wrong, it’s cool!”

We have mapped the entire human genome, true. However, the genome is not interchangeable with a gene. Genes make up a mere 1.5% of our genome, and frankly, we’re not clear on what the other 98.5% does. Most of it is non-coding, but that doesn’t mean that it’s useless. Stripping out all the ‘inert’ genomic material wouldn’t result in a more efficient organism, just a dead one. On top of this, we are still figuring out which genes do what. Genetic redundancy is fantastic for an organism, allowing them to survive a loss-of-function mutation, but it leaves the scientist tearing her hair out. In paper after paper I have read recently for molecular biology, researchers discuss how they knocked out a gene, but still the phenotype found a way around it. Wings, for instance. Wing development isn’t reliant on just one gene in most cases. Knocking out a specific gene trying to get a wingless critter might simply get you one with deformed wings. Or wings on the wrong thoracic segment. Or… No visible result at all.

Will editing our genes lead to the extinction of the human race? Not likely, except in some deranged Green’s wet dream. Will it change us? Could be. I do believe there have been plenty of stories about the human race becoming something ‘other’ than homo sapiens. I’m not going to say that will happen. For one thing, gene therapy may or may not be permanent. We are still trying to grasp epigenetics, the cell’s memory. Some traits are passed on, others aren’t. Some persist for generations, other fade in a few replications.

So much uncertainty. One thing I am sure of: someone, somewhere, will meddle, thinking they have a firm grasp, and they are going to find out the difference between grasping a nettle, and grabbing a jellyfish. John Ringo’s essay on the Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse is a must-read. My story on Zombie Maggots, written around the same time, also touches on the consequences of well-intentioned science gone very wrong (it’s available as part of the free eBook Twisted Mindflow on my site).

As for me? I’m not living in fear. Idiots we will always have with us, especially the morons who think we can breed for intelligence. We don’t fully grasp why people are ‘smart’, have trouble quantifying what ‘smart’ is, and remember that non-coding DNA? Well, the difference between a chimp and a man is less than 1% of the genome. But those differences, called Human Accelerated Regions (HARs), are located near neural development regions. Not in them, no, just near. What does this mean? We don’t know yet. I’m sure there are theories (I haven’t tried to find out) and I’m sure some fool will experiment trying to create a Superman. Which is where fiction comes in. Exploring the big questions. What if? What happens if this goes on?

56 Comments

Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, WRITING: CRAFT

56 responses to “The Squishy Sciences

  1. tolonaro

    Remembering my grade school days (when we learned more than modern High School), it was mentioned that based on life span and maturity time, human life span should run about 1000 years. (I know fits the bible in Genesis; but this is calculated off “natural knowledge”). Now what is thinking like with that much experience? Is there a qualitative change triggered? and why the present shorter life span?

    I have seen very little speculation on the idea of qualitative changes in intelligence like this would have to induce. Many functions in biology wait until proper triggers arrive (think metamophic cocoons; puberty; etc). How much of that unexplained genetic meaning is just not triggered.

    I do remember a short story (60s?) in which humans entering space discovered an Axototl component in humans, triggered by, I think, lack of gravity.

  2. Genes make up a mere 1.5% of our genome, and frankly, we’re not clear on what the other 98.5% does.

    Something the “I Fing love science” group tends to miss.
    (Me, I don’t love science, but I do have a total geek crush on it so I did know that. It’s the basis of the rebuttal to the “humans are a ridiculous percent like random ape species, and also tapeworms.”)

  3. Knocking out a specific gene trying to get a wingless critter might simply get you one with deformed wings. Or wings on the wrong thoracic segment. Or… No visible result at all.

    Oh, that is AWESOME!

  4. “The Squishy Sciences… Also stinky, and bitey, and often toxic… ”

    …and found stuck to the bottom of your shoe.

    I suspect gene deletion is such a crapshoot because DNA is like Islam; the most recent version supercedes, but if it didn’t exist, the older and presently-abrogated version would express. Perhaps too the more widely a trait exists, the more backup versions exist. My immediate thought is that instead of deleting one gene at a time, you delete ALL the “inactive” material and add it back one group at a time, until you hit a critical threshold for expression of whatever.

    • And some researchers try that, too. Yes, there is a lot of ‘backup’ and we don’t always know where that was stored (this thumb drive? no. That floppy disc, no again… and so on).

      • You’re still way too far up in the archive. Try the tape backups, and if it’s still not there, the stone tablets. ;P

        [Which reminds mne… “desert varnish” bacteria might be an interesting target for anciient-DNA research.]

        Back in the Dark Ages I was a biochem/microbiology major, mostly because it was just damn fun. 😀 My university had one of the first gas chromatographs, a monstrous thing about the size of an original mainframe. (Also had one of the first particle accelerators, which the physics dept thought was a fine use for an under-appreciated maintenance tunnel. We’re right experimental here in flyover country.)

        One of my pet peeves in SF/F is a character with some special ability that uses energy (either intrinsically or by “doing work” in the mechanical sense, eg. telekinesis) but doesn’t eat enough to replenish it and doesn’t seem to have any other energy source. Not mine — one of my MC’s ongoing gripes is the high metabolism associated with his abilities.

        • One of my pet peeves in SF/F is a character with some special ability that uses energy (either intrinsically or by “doing work” in the mechanical sense, eg. telekinesis) but doesn’t eat enough to replenish it and doesn’t seem to have any other energy source. Not mine — one of my MC’s ongoing gripes is the high metabolism associated with his abilities.

          Relay principle. A relay uses low voltage/amps to control a much higher, higher amperage, current. Oddly, that part of Star Wars made sense: The Force didn’t come from the user; the user only directed the Force. So if there was some sort of energy permeating space-time and there was some way to interact with it, a user might could direct it.

          All this is an SF version of magic as worship. A person does not have a power to accomplish something, but appeals to or manipulates what does. Or, from some points of view, appears to manipulate.

          If you really want to get out there, there’s Campbell’s messing around with Virtual Machines, which as G.H. Stein put it, was magic. It came down to a schematic of an electrical circuit supposedly able to work just as well as the real thing. Of course, if the real machine didn’t really work, then the schematic wouldn’t either, so there is that.

          • If you drew the schematic with a conducting carbon pencil, and the schematic was the shape of a circuit (as some of them were), they were making a really flat and un-durable circuitboard, not a schematic. So of course they could plug it in for a while and have it work.

            I think that’s what I remember about the fad, anyway.

            • It started with Campbell running one of real machines only to find it was unplugged after the session. It got down to inking schematics and using string for wires and the thing supposedly worked just fine. Stein claimed to have one on an index card. Periodically it would no longer work, and he said reinking the vacuum tube schematic would fix it.

      • This is the first place I’ve ever heard that explicitly spelled out. And i’m thinking of all the photos and notes of tinkering with genes and the results where that just didn’t register.

        This is not trolling to spark an origins debate, but it raises some strong questions about evolution in that we seem to be looking at multiple viable genetic changes and not the theoretical single grand mutation.

        • One of the most frustrating things about that topic is that you can’t talk about it without folks going nuclear– and it’s not The Usual Suspects who go nuclear at the idea.

          That’s one of the things that turned me off of watching normal TV is that the writers were lazy about this stuff, and always had Strawman Religious Twerp being the jerk. (I’ve met very, very few of those in reality, while I know a ton of IFLS twerps; part of that may be due to geekdom, but it holds true for my relatives! Who definitely aren’t socially selected by ME!)

          For real science, it’s a gigantic “I don’t know, but I at least kinda want to.” You can’t avoid some emotional attachment to ideas, but you’ve got to be honest with yourself about if that’s why you favor a theory. Yeah, a lot of folks don’t do that– and being unable to explain why you believe what you believe doesn’t disqualify you from believing it, but a decent teacher has to soak in the humility lessons (humility, not humiliation) for people to be made into really good scientists. If they don’t, you end up with someone who is more a technician**– they can be really, amazingly, awesomely good, but only as long as it’s in the line of what they already know. If stuff goes off the book, or if the book is not accurate enough*, then they’re screwed.

          * Another shorthand that can mess folks up. There’s true, there’s false, and then there’s scientific theories; look at all the old theories of gravity, which were accurate enough for what they were being used for. A theory can be wrong, or it can be “accurate enough for now” and “no longer accurate.” I’m probably not saying it very well.
          ** I am a trained technician. I aspire to be a scientist. Oddly enough, cooking offers me the best route for this… the uncertainty there, inconsistency of elements, is big enough that even I can notice it.

  5. My bologna has a first name
    It’s bioresearch staff
    My bologna has a second name
    It’s gas chromatograph
    And I have wondered, so have you
    Why it tastes the way it do…
    Well, Oscar Mayer has a way
    With recombinant DNA!

    Think of me when you eat your next hot dog, and I shall be sufficiently rewarded. 😀

  6. lfox328

    One thing that the Captain America story got right is the core being they eventually chose for the experiment. They followed sound dog breeding practices, which is – First, get the dogs with good temperament, then select from them to get other characteristics you want. In humans, that would be a good character/honorable behavior. By NOT choosing the most physically superior specimen, the CA scientists enhanced a fundamentally decent man, and the resulting “super man” used his powers for good.

  7. “Soft sciences” is a term that people who don’t understand the ridiculous difficulties in conducting research (especially with human subjects) use. Thanks for the CRISPR/RNAi rant. 🙂

    • My pleasure. Felt good to get some of that off my chest.

    • The soft sciences are “hardening up” nowadays. Mostly thanks to having the equipment to do good experimental work with, as Cedar notes.

      Familiarity with the history of science has taught me that everything pretty much started out as a soft science, until the equipment became available. Physics, chemistry, etc. – all of them were in the same state at one time.

      (Then, of course, you have the voodoo “sciences” – which haven’t advanced in the least.)

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      Counterargument: those difficulties are the reason for the soft science label. The more you need to mitigate the effects of a million confounding factors, the more any research in that field needs to be taken with salt.

      We probably have more we can learn about steel, but the problems of understanding steel are very solvable, relatively speaking.

      Anything to do with humans will probably always be a lot more challenging.

  8. And don’t forget to celebrate Mole Day tomorrow (10/23) at 6:02 (AM or PM, your choice).

  9. BobtheRegisterredFool

    I think this may be the first time I’ve read Ringo’s IZA.

    I compared myself to his ‘little hitler’ profile, and didn’t see any close matches until I got to wondering if Ringo is saying it is possible to make a virus that would cause pot smokers to experience slow but irreversible organ failure. Oh boy, I’d better go get a masters in that! Except it runs into the same practical and moral roadblocks in all my other such plans, and I don’t want to study biotechnology that much.

    Alternative profile. IZA was written a whole three years ago. At which point it wasn’t as clear that chemical weapons might be entering the category of things every third world strongman can access and might deploy. It is possible that the same thing might happen with biologicals. Widespread deployment in Syria saw some significant practical advances in chemical weapons use. It may be that we shall see the same for biological and nuclear.

  10. In paper after paper I have read recently for molecular biology, researchers discuss how they knocked out a gene, but still the phenotype found a way around it. Wings, for instance. Wing development isn’t reliant on just one gene in most cases. Knocking out a specific gene trying to get a wingless critter might simply get you one with deformed wings. Or wings on the wrong thoracic segment. Or… No visible result at all.

    That type of thing reminds me of how complex the whole subject really is. Beyond simple genetics there is all that pleitropy and epigenetics that made me head heard when we discussed in my biological anthropology classes. Even when researchers figure out what a single gene does in and of itself, the combination of what the gene does in combination with others, means that the results of the presence or absence of a single gene can be non-deterministic in and of itself – and they don’t know until they experiment. Add in development and environmental triggers that can turn off and on expression of genes, and it is all quite a muddle. (OK, enough rambling by me for now.)

  11. Confession time: It may not count as genetic engineering, but as a kid I wanted to experiment some with genetics. There was a type of solution used to literally crack genes of plants in order to product mutations in hopes of creating new varieties by chance. It was/maybe is used by those who grow flowers. But there’s a lot of plants that don’t breed true. Potatoes are one, and when I discovered that potato seed were not genetically stable, I went “I’ve got to try that.”

    Alas, never did. The only experiments I did was with corn hybrids and, when the kids were small. demonstrating selection by increasing the size of sunflowers just by planting seeds harvested from the largest.

  12. Science fiction leads the way again, exploring both the good and the bad potential of emerging tech. Flowers for Algenon, or LMB’s Falling Free. Heck, at the macro level, Frankenstein. We all want to play god with the human race. :: rubs hands gleefully :: Bwahahahaha!

    Scary to think it’s probably closer than fusion power.

  13. Doug Northcote

    I’m not saying for sure that its infected but I got a big ol popup for a trojan (virus) infection from the John Ringo page link..

    Anyone else see this?

    Kaspersky
    Endpoint Security 10 for Windows
    ACCESS DENIED
    The requested webpage cannot be provided.

    The requested object at the URL

    http://www.johnringo.net/thelibrary/b

    is infected HEUR:Trojan.Script.Iframer
    Message generated on: 5:00:27 PM

  14. Doug Northcote

    Suspect a false positive. Tried this on a machine with a different Anti-virus and no issues/nothing reported.

    • I know the website hasn’t been updated in quite some time, but I’ve accessed it with a couple of machines in the last week or so (ref for a friend led to this post) and didn’t see anything hinky.

      • Doug Northcote

        Agreed Cedar, Kaspersky is rather known for false positives.

        Great post on all the above.

        • Does he have any ad banners? I know that some of the more protective virus devices will detect that one of those is adding a doesn’t-always-check-their-stuff address, and block the site on that.

          • Doug Northcote

            Not sure Foxfier, and I’m unable to see it from work. I don’t remember there being any add banners but can’t really look.

            I am leaning heavily towards the false positive result as 50 plus responses have probably read the Ringo link haven’t seen that error/issue apparently.