Saturday, July 25, 2009

The biology revolution


As some of you know, I am a (semi) retired research scientist in the field of biology. Much, maybe most, biological research is now molecular. Molecular biology started with the deconstruction of a DNA molecule by Watson and Crick in '53, very close to my birth date. The development of PCR in '84 by Mullis was the first key step in molecular technology.

Molecular biology has turned out to be far more complex than it first appeared so, as yet, practical impacts of molecular research have been felt mainly in the field of identification. Bioengineering is still largely a matter for science fiction but that will change. Drug companies are moving out of random screening of likely organic molecules into a race for gene-based designer drugs.

Bioengineering is likely to have the most tremendous impact on our social system because, unlike the products of the industrial revolution and the electronic revolution, it will affect us directly.

The interesting point about technology is not that it gives new or better gadgets but that it changes society itself. Consider how sewage systems, pesticides, mass transport, electronic media and contraceptive pills have changed the way we do things, the way we think, our very morality.

Molecular technology will challenge our society and conventions of morality as has no other technology because it will be used to change ourselves and create new life.

The churches seem to have no idea what is about to hit. The CoE vicars that I have spoken to seem mainly worked up about cloning copies of individuals. That will be the least of our issues. We will start by eradicating genetic disease and then run straight into problems with the definition of 'disease'. Does that include cosmetics such as nose size, hight, breast size, or penis size? Will we have generations of little girls all looking like the contemporary celeb bimbo or should we just make showgirls with extra long legs?

Is it a good idea to up the anti-cancer immune response to people working with cancerous materials? How about manufacturing worker classes to do specific jobs?

Good SF is about people, not things.

So, here is a challenge.

What bioengineering development's impact on society do you think would make a good SF story?

15 comments:

matapam said...

The unexpected side effects. You know that there are going to be a bundle of them. What if one (or more) is exceedingly useful?

The Civil Rights problems as animal genes are used, or completely artificial genes are tried.

PC Eugenics.

Terrorists, enemy governments, environmental loonies, teenage hackers. Cheap Chinese ripoffs.

C Kelsey said...

The social upheaval caused by the capability change yourself at whim. Today I'm a handsome guy, tomorrow I'm a girl, the day after I'm a two legged tiger with a horse tail, large hawk wings...

How do you catch a criminal who could be anyone or anything? How does society adjust to this change? What are the extremists being extreme about?

warpcordova said...

The possibilities in the hard SF realm, since the advances of biology since the 1960's, has opened up new possibilities that I don't think have been completely thought out yet.

Besides, who doesn't want a pet Liger?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

The capacity to "create" large groups of people and have them born by either artificial wombs or animals. I'm thinking populations that have fallen below replacement -- say Japanese.

matapam said...

Yeah, but someone's still got to raise those kids, and that's the main reason women have stopped having kids. They really mess up a career, and they are horribly expensive. Women with fertility problems will be helped. Men who want children, but can't find a wife might benefit. But I don't think there will be a jump in absolute birthrates.

Until the government steps in.

I can see a government really creating a problem, trying to maintain their population. Planned by people who have no experience with the foster child/CPS system, with no idea of how messed up a person is when they lack stable parental love as a baby and child. A sizable bunch of institutionally raised social outcasts could be, umm, an interesting edition to any culture.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Pam,

That's EXACTLY what I meant. People who have "no known parents" (most governments could probably -- at this point -- access a sizeable repository of frozen embryos left over from fertility treatments, and some of the more totalitarian (coff, russia) might do it) raised in institutions, possibly as armies and/or other such purposes. THINK about it. I didn't say it was pretty. But it is one of the things that I think is interesting.

matapam said...

One of my many story starts involves the private companies in America. They can fix all genetic problems, so your child is fine. They have several upgrades (intelligence, athletic ability, musical talent, height, looks, immune system and so forth), all proven in their test kids.

They won't test anything on _someone's_ child, because they'd get sued. But an embryo without parents is fair game. And when a company has flushed enough 'failures' just before they were viable, how are they going to treat the successful tests?

I had the various companies handle those first test kids in various fashions. Good, bad and indifferent. Then one of the worst started taking over the other genetic engineering companies and consolidating the test kids . . .

It doesn't even take active malice. In fact, good intentions may be the most dangerous thing around.

C Kelsey said...

Matapam,

"It doesn't even take active malice..."

And that is the very cause of the phrase "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." Sounds like a pretty interesting story.

matapam said...

Well, it went more into the unplanned results of the genetic tinkering than the social issues. My inevitable drift into cuteness produced working magic.

More serious writing, closer to what will really happen probably won't be cute at all.

As a serious subject for SF, it gets pretty close to horror, IMO. Possibly even . . . Literature. This is one of the good things about SF. It can bring out and emphasize some of the possible bad things about a near term scientific breakthrough, and get people thinking about how to avoid that part of the revolution.

Lois Bujold's Falling Free is an excellent example, although I think she puts the breakthroughs way to far into the future.

Mike said...

C Kelsey? I'm just wondering ... one of the problems I have as a software engineer is people thinking that I can somehow produce miracles, and having to explain that there are some things I can't do in software (no matter what the salespeople said) and that quite a bit of what they want takes time and resources. Plus oddities such as data loading and maintenance and...

I really don't expect biological miracles. Overnight body changes seem to me unlikely, at least on the scale you're talking about. And if we had them... I can guarantee that if you change into a tiger overnight, you aren't going to be able to walk tomorrow. It takes time to learn how to use a new physiology... baby tigers take a while, why wouldn't you? As for flying... I'll bet we'll be scraping changelings off the pavement.

Hum. Are we going to need bio tech orientation, like has been suggested for information sciences, so that people can sort out what bio tech can do (along with the time needed, support infrastructure required, and so forth) from the scams and fables? There's probably a story in there, about the guys offering cheap fountains-of-youth elixir...and disappearing before you find out just what you paid for that bottled water?

Mike said...

And since the question on the table was "What bioengineering development's impact on society do you think would make a good SF story?"...

I think the terrible decisions that will be faced by many parents when adjustments to the next generation are easily available. Sure, it sounds reasonable to eliminate various genetic "diseases" but as was mentioned, there's a problem with exactly what disease means. And are changing IQ, hair color, skin color, size, weight, etc. reasonable choices for parents to make? What is the basis for decision? If your parents choose to make you a football player, but you really prefer ballet... I can see some real tension between the generations here about choices made or not made. And as the side effects unfold...

Dave Freer said...

Bacteria taking over government! Oh wait, that's already happened here... Seriously I believe the big changes will in microbiology.

Teddy said...

I agree with the "unexpected side effects" idea. I wrote something on that theme (and will eventually clean it up and submit).

Genetic engineering, stem cells, etc. "When you eliminate the 'possible' all that's left is the 'impossible'." Likewise, when science eliminates the *known* diseases, we will see the rise of *unknown*, unknowable and frightening new ones. After all, there are some biologists that will tell you that the modern era's "plague" of cancer is due to lengthening of lifespan allowing previously unknown diseases to be "uncovered".

Mike said...

John? As the "insider" in the field, what do you see in the 10 to 20 year future for biology? What's in the research and development pipeline ahead of us?u

John Lambshead said...

Dear Mike

I was a molecular biology user (for biodiversity research) rather than a technologist but I guess that gives me some insights.

I think we will see more simple gene-swap in food plants and, eventually, animals to produced tailored crops. This will create two problems. The first is swamping of 'wild' and 'domesticated' populations with synthetic genotypes. That is a danger because of loss of genetic diversity. The second is the accidental creation of a disaster by some unforseen interaction between the synthetic and human being by, eg, ingestion of some organic by product in food or the contamination of human genotypes by genes accidentally transferred by a virus.

Other problems will be biowarfare issues, including terrorism and vandalism. What will happen when a fifteen year old bored Albanian kid can create new viruses in the kitchen with gear bought from Tescos?

Drugs will be tailored to genotypes (i.e. the genotypes of the wealthy).

Real time change in morphology is a long way off but genetic manipulation of eggs and sperm is another matter. that will be far easier. I can see many ethical issues here.

There will be lots of biogrown microbrial processes - brewing, in other words. This is a very old human technology that we have a head start in.

Molecular biology is where electronics was in about 1930. I would expect a biotechnical revolution somewhere about 2060 or so. Maybe we can create high CO2-absorbing algae and fix global warming!

John