Biohacking

I wanna write a story about a girl who genetically engineers herself to get rid of genetic weaknesses she’s inherited. What kinds of problems/conflicts do you guys think would arise from biohacking oneself?

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Genes are complex and one gene may control or influence more than one characteristic. Often when she humans breed animals for such things as skin and hair color they also affect neurology of the animal. She could produce really big problems by trying to edit out what she thinks of as weaknesses. Genes don’t really code for characteristics; they code for proteins.
If she truly has genetic problems she should get trained medical personnel to do the editing.

Another danger is that for germline editing you need to snip out a piece of DNA or splice it in. You could snip out the wrong part or splice it into the wrong place. In addition such work may make use of a modified retrovirus. You risk losing control of the virus.
I think you should only do such editing if you have a very good reason to do so. There are some very good reasons.

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There’s also the ethical questions that arise from the idea of biohacking oneself and also others. Is this something we should genuinely strive for on a larger scale? Could this sort of thing lead to a world where eugenics is prevalent? Would these lead to a hierarchy of those who have perfect genes over those who don’t, whether it be due to lack of resources or just not wanting to? What happens to people who can’t or refuse to participate in biohacking, such as people with chronic diseases or who are disabled?

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The ethical issues are interesting particularly when it comes to who benefits from the genes. What about genes the benefit the individuals but when widely distributed hurt people as a whole. Or what about genes that benefit society as a whole but hurt individuals.
I think in the past and currently genes that help the individual but hurt society have been the ones that have ended up beiing widespread. This is of course debatable and gets into if humans are innately altruistic(put others first) or innately selfish(put their own interests first.)

I’m interested in what she perceives as genetic weaknesses, and if these are actually weaknesses. I think if it’s a weakness or not depends on perspective.

Not sure if genetic manipulation is a retrofit— given the presence of the original genetic pattern in all her cells, how could it be changed in a mature organism?

All very true! The problem is that seeing a medical professional isn’t always viable, and plus, medicines have to be regulated and tested, whereas a bio hacker could come up with a faster (and of course, more dangerous) possible solution. One of the goals of biohackers is to democratize science, and I wanna explore what that would mean, both the dangers and the benefits.

By genetic weaknesses, I mean things like heart disease, increased tendency to form blood clots, muscular dystrophy, diseases that lead to shortened life span, etc. Of course, there’s cosmetic stuff too that people would want to change. Increased muscle mass and things like that.

In your opinion, would it be feasible for a person who can’t find a cure from medical professionals to turn to biohacking to cure a genetic disease?

It’s interesting to think about but I honestly think the ethical questions involved in genetic engineering are overblown. It could virtually eradicate a lot of genetic diseases and improve lifespan and quality of life for a lot of people.

That’s not to completely dismiss the ethical problems though. I just think the possible benefits outweigh the risks— if it’s limited to curing diseases, anyway. If people could engineer themselves to be stronger, faster, more beautiful, etc. that would cause more problems.

I’m not sure what you mean? DNA sequences can be altered

In individual cells, certainly. Not sure about an attempt to change the DNA sequences in all the cells of a mature organism, which would conflict with inherited characteristics such as hair colour, etc.

I’m coming at this from personal experience. My husband had a genetically caused neurological disease and died of it. He would have benefited from such biohacking. He had a genetic stutter with a repeated sequence of …CAGCAGCAGCAG… interrupting production of a protein. This lead to OPCA (oliviopontocerabeller atrophy) Part of his brain stem atrophied. I think in writing your story you might look into such diseases.They character would have strong motivation to hack.
It seems to me though that medical researchers also have a strong motivation to make use of the gene editing technology, so I think there needs to be a good reason why the character has access to the techology and why researchers aren’t releasing the technology to those who need it.
I thiink you wouldn’t have to edit the genes in every cell of the body, only in the part of the brain affected. The challenges I see are getting the editing agent through the blood brain barrier and then making sure that it targets the correct part of the chromosome. Target the wrong place and you could mess up production of a necessary protein and then die. But if the person is going to die a painful death it would be a risk worth taking.
It might make sense that the character is a researcher and she is jumping ahead of clinical trials by using the therapy on herself. This would provide a plausible reason for her to have the access and knowledge of how to do it while also having a plausible reason why she isn’t supposed to do it–not yet tested.

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Just read this article. Might be good background for your story.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/10/the-weekly/sickle-cell-dna-reset.html

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Other people have discussed gene-editing specifics, so I’ll just add one that I’ve not seen here yet-- people might make a change that seems fine in the short term, but damages their offspring (maybe after a couple of generations) (which could lead to accidental extinction if adopted widely enough). Aside from that, I’ll just add some general things that apply to anything medical: in a world where it’s legal, entities trying to make money off it by advertising, encouraging people to use it en masse etc without sufficient regulation, no longitudinal studies and so on. People using it not out of need but because of fear and peer pressure. Misinformation campaigns to bury unflattering scientific findings. Lobbying for useless treatments. Patent monopolies and companies being unwilling to reveal the details of treatment to patients, so that their techniques can’t be copied, and the difficulties of tracing responsibility. In a world where it’s illegal but the science is fairly widely known, all the issues one would have with any other medical procedure performed in an unsafe environment (so everything from infection risk to someone just doing entirely the wrong thing…), plus a risk of people artificially engineering viruses (or something akin to viruses-- intentionally destructive edits, anyway). In both cases, inequality of access, quality of treatment and information. Wealthy people with good connections would get even more of a health boost over everyone else (even if she’s not paying for treatment but is doing it herself, if she’s got a job at the cutting edge of science, she’s probably from a wealthy background). I’d suggest reading around on the pitfalls of the pharmaceutical industry plus the pitfalls of the software industry to find stuff at the intersection of the two.

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Liability gets interesting. Suppose the gene editing makes a person more easily angry and so more likely to commit murder. The company who edited the genes might be liable. It gets into the question of genetic factors contributing to mass shootings.

Here are some fictional clips about bio hacking / gene editing, and its advantages and hazards. You may find something useful.




Oh, I recommend the movie Splice too.

Update. Remembered two videos a little closer to reality and the topic…


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I suspect in practice they’d keep it to ‘whomever performed the action is responsible for it, legally’ (just as rn we don’t blame parents for their children’s actions in a legal context), mostly for pragmatic reasons (would get an infinite chain of blame)… but one might be able to claim diminished responsibility if one could prove some dodgy edits, and sue companies separately for the edits themselves, so there might be an industry around that.

Very cool premise. Have fun with it! I think others have pointed out some considerations. Seems to me the main one is the science & technology, but how much of a problem that is depends on how far in the future you set the story and how good you are at getting readers to suspend disbelief :slight_smile: It is sci-fi, after all.

Ethics? Minor. Better story if some ethics get trampled on, anyway.

Theory? No problem - we’ve moved beyond figuring out whether genetic modification of adult cells is possible. There are already practical applications, in particular gene therapy for cancer.

Side effects? Definitely a concern - all the better for your story.

Plausibility that you character would have to do this outside the medical system? I think @purglepurglepurgle mentioned some plausible reasons, such as corporate control via patents. Again, this is great for a story.

Science and technology? Yeah, this is where you might have to get creative. Gene therapy is currently big-league medical science, and definitely at a clumsy and primitive stage of development, almost hit-and-miss. It has huge potential, so of course it will get better. Depending on when you set your story, you can either assume cheaper, more evolved technology, or you’ll need to get creative with how your character stealthily ‘borrows’ the required kit without people knowing. Hacking the system, so to speak, which could be a combination of social and perhaps computer hacking. E.g. substituting patient diagnostic samples for analysis.

Are you thinking of a sort of ‘grinder’ vibe? Something dark and gritty like William Gibson?

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It seems to me that if genetic tinkering produced mass murderers and psychopaths, the entity that did the tinkering might be held liable. Just as if you lie about your genetic health when donating semen you’re held liable for the health problems produced in the children. Possibly it would be the people with the behavioral health problem who might sue. Yes those people would be held accountable for the crimes they committed but they might sue for the damages that the genetic tinkering caused. They ended up killing people and in prison because of the actions of those who tinkered with the genes.

Thanks for the response! Good point about the science and tech. I’ll probably assume cheaper technology— I mean, it’s not that far off; right now, anyone can buy a CRISPR kit for under $200.

I’m not sure yet what kind of tone I’m going for yet. A dark and gritty vibe does seem to fit the story idea though.

Yeah, I think that’s plausible, I just don’t think 3rd parties would hold the companies liable for the damage resulting from those people’s actions.