Building Worton | Could it Ever Happen?

A mutant plague is all well and good within the context of science fiction, but what about here in the real world? Could something like the Dark Legend series ever actually happen? Could a gene altering parasite really be created in a lab and unleash hell? The answer is that it might be able to happen, given the right set of circumstances.

Every day scientists are making leaps and bounds in the name of genome manipulation. There will, soon, be such a thing as designer babies. Parents with the money to do so will soon be able to choose their baby’s sex or eye colour or hair colour or whether it has big ears. They’ll be able to make sure that it never gets any inherited diseases… But hey, why stop there? DNA contains every bit of information we need to survive, and more, so why not go with six fingers? An extra toe? You could even genetically graft a duck bill onto your baby if you really wanted to. My point is that DNA is no longer the fixed thing that it was once was. We now have the ability to change it, to alter it, before a child is born. Very soon we’ll be able to change our DNA whenever we want, when we’re twenty or forty or eighty. Already we’re able to select the traits we want through IVF and manipulation and genome editing is only a few steps beyond that.

Altering DNA, adding to it or taking something away, relies on a process called CRISPR. This is a very recent scientific discovery, only from the last decade, but already it is changing the whole study of genetics. It uses enzymes, specifically one by the name of cas9, to cut out a specific strand of DNA. CRISPR can also be used to add to DNA, giving your baby that longed for and beautiful duck bill. It’s already been used to create the Spider-Goat… A goat that can produce silk, like a spider. So far CRISPR has only been achieved at a single celled level and not on a fully grown, adult human but I would say that it is only a matter of time. There is also ZFN and TALEN which do similar things. CRISPR is the latest and best of these processes.

So, if Dark Legend were to happen, there would have to be a parasite or a creature which naturally secreted a CRISPR like enzyme, an enzyme that destroyed a person’s DNA as happens in the books. Thank goodness one of those doesn’t exist… Yet! For years the dream of scientists the world over has been to create life and they are getting incredibly close. In fact, they are practically there. Earlier this year scientists created their first synthetic life form. So far they’ve only managed to make microscopic bacteria but their eventual goal is to make a full, organic life form. We’re not talking spider-goats or duck billed babies here, we’re talking new never before seen animals and creatures and yes, maybe even parasites. We’re talking about playing God.

It could start of simply and innocently enough- Some scientist builds a parasite in order to provide a ‘natural’ alternative to the CRISPR process… It goes wrong. It doesn’t work the way it should. Instead of targeting the specific genes it targets everything. It breeds, it spreads… Oh boy, we’re doomed!

But if it corrupted our DNA so much wouldn’t that just kill us? In one scenario, yes. There is, however, another possibility. DNA is not simple. It isn’t just the stuff that keeps us alive… There is also a whole heap of inactive junk hiding in there, some of which could be dangerous. Estimates vary but it has been guessed that as much of 97% of our DNA is junk This includes ancient diseases, genetic back alleys and heaven only knows what else. All it would take was the activation of one of these strands of junk DNA, say by way of man made parasite, and a person could potentially become in-human. They could devolve. They could, in theory, mutate.

Science fiction is brilliant at championing our worst fears. It has done ever since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Dark Legend does exactly the same, albeit unintentionally I’ll admit. Scientists are already looking at manipulating DNA, they are trying to create life and both of these investigations could go incredibly wrong.  If the information got into the wrong hands it could be deadly. The plague may not be exactly as Dark Legend, it could be something radically different, but it is possible to some extent.

All together now: Spider Goat, Spider Goat… Does whatever a Spider Goat Does… Actually the image is not of a Spider Goat… It’s from Delamere Dairy.




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