A way back, in 1999, the SyFy channel (then called SciFi) show Farscape featured an episode in which the mad genius Nam Tar offered to take DNA samples form our fugitive crew and use it to provide a roadmap back to each of their home planets. Ostensibly, NamTar could trace the mutations in their DNA back to their planetary origins, and, using that data, provide a road map back to their home planets.
This was one of those times when a science fiction show’s writers had less imagination than reality: Not only can we use DNA to trace back to our origins (though only locally, on this planet); we make art out of it.
I heard about artist Lynn Fellman at a talk by Ira Flatow, of Science Friday fame: Working with the University of Minnesota’s Urban Outreach/Engagement Center, Fellman sent DNA samples from seven north Minneapolis residents to The Genographic Project, which specializes in population genetics. The lab analyzed mutations in the DNA to provide an ancestral path for each resident from present day Minneapolis down through pre-history to humanity’s origins in Africa. Fellman turned these maps into art for UROC’s Deep Ancestry exhibit.
A patient receiving a flu shot.
In the not too distant future, the phrase “shooting up” could take on a whole new meaning. At least if the U.S. Army has its way. Wired‘s Danger Room blog reported a few days ago that the military is seeking bids for a high-tech form of vaccination that could be delivered quickly and efficiently to a large number of troops in the heat of battle. More specifically, the Pentagon wants a DNA vaccine that can be administered via a literal shot to the arm—and a jolt of electricity. All without causing too much “discomfort” to the patient, of course.
Suffice it to say that this futuristic-sounding vaccine would be a far cry from what you and I received as children. As last year’s swine flu epidemic made painfully clear, our current methods of vaccine development, which have remained essentially unchanged for decades, are woefully outdated. The vaccines take too long—upwards of seven months—to produce, are easily prone to failure if not prepared correctly and, in many cases, lose their potency after only a year. These failings have helped draw attention to DNA-based vaccines, cocktails of genetically engineered plasmids which offer the promise of inducing a stronger, and more targeted, immune response. Where regular vaccines are slow to develop and hard to combine, DNA vaccines can be made relatively quickly and mixed together to ward off multiple pathogens at once. They are also generally safer to produce and administer, more durable and can be scaled more easily.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say the aliens in District 9 have the snazziest trigger lock around. The Prawns, as they are known in the movie, have some strange ideas for safety, though. Their trigger lock is DNA-encoded not to keep little Prawns away from dangerous gear, but to prevent any other species from activating the weapons. (That’s the sort of detail that raises all sorts of questions about just who the Prawns were fighting that they needed this kind of security, and whether the enemy also had DNA-locked rifles.)
While the Prawns seem to have mastered DNA-detecting technology, it remains a bit beyond our reach out here in the real, human world. But that may be the next big frontier in biometrics. Because, let’s face it, the typical kinds of biometric security used in of the lairs of movie super-villains isn’t science-fiction anymore—it’s reality.
Fingerprint scan? We can do that on a laptop, or even a mere thumb drive. Palm scan? Pssh. Placing a hand on the scanner is passé. Retinal scan? Of course. Facial recognition? Voice recognition? Done and done. All of these different biometrics has been exploited by security companies trying to make money in a world where verifying authenticity is becoming an increasing problem. But the biological signature big business and national governments really want to capture is DNA. Unlike our faces and voices, it never changes. Unlike our fingerprints, it’s very difficult to fake. And except for identical twins, it’s totally unique to each individual (and it may soon be possible to distinguish even identical twins [pdf]). Because this technology would be so valuable, everyone from the Austrian national government to major corporations is toiling away (pdf) in their R&D departments to develop a DNA biometric lock.
Greetings from the flashing, buzzing, control room of Science Not Fiction! Today we kick off our Codex Futurius project, which will strive to answer the kinds of questions that we see keep coming up in science fiction books, shows, movies–and even the occasional musical. We’re phrased the questions in the way that a beleaguered author or scriptwriter might pose them, and today’s question is:
I want Superheroes in my story, all with amazing powers. I also want a good explanation for their origin: could genetic mutation or manipulation create a superhuman?