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Tuesday, April 12, 2016
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I regularly peruse the Real Clear Science web site and usually open up two or three articles from their latest daily list of interesting science articles. A frequent theme of the articles that the RCS editors select for their list regards “how the world could/might/will end”. If you are in a gloomy mood, then you can find examples of such articles here and here and here and here and here.

A few days ago, the RCS daily list included an article from the Science20 web site entitled “Could Anything Make Humans Extinct In the Near Future?” The author (Robert Walker, an inventor and computer geek) reviews more than fifteen possible candidates, including climate change, a comet or asteroid strike, pandemics, overpopulation, runaway nanotechnology, nuclear war, etc. According to Walker, the human race is pretty hard to kill. Many of the candidate “extinction events” could severely reduce our numbers and would probably end civilization as we now know it; but somewhere on the planet, a band of humans would mostly likely live on despite all the calamity.

(FOOTNOTE, strangely enough, Walker did not consider an H-Bomb “Doomsday Machine” like the one in the movie Doctor Strangelove. But then again, in that movie, the good Doctor himself came up with a way to save humankind with a scheme to send small groups to live in caves for the next 25 years. So perhaps Dr. Strangelove was just another example of how hard it is to totally eradicate the human species.)

Overall, Walker seems pretty optimistic that the homo sapiens species is quite robust and thus is not headed for extinction in the foreseeable future. However, there is one thing that does seem to scare him. And if this thing spooks a sunny Pollyanna like Walker, then it is probably worth learning about. To be honest, I have heard or read next to nothing on this particular topic thus far. Thus it’s time to find out more.

This threat is something of a hybrid between a pandemic and an evil “gray goo” nanobot invasion. It is called “xenobiology“, i.e. life forms that do not rely on the DNA molecules that every living thing here on earth depend upon; instead, these life forms have a different kind of directive mechanism and protein-building scheme at their core, something that is being called “XNA“. As you know, with CRISPR and other amazing technology advances in gene editing, bio-scientists can now do amazing things in terms of rearranging the DNA for most any microbe, plant, animal, whatever. We can now custom-design most any form of life.

But not content with that, science is now trying to kick it up a notch. Why be stuck with the standard 4-base / double-helix replicating mechanism for biological beings, i.e. DNA and RNA? Why not come up with a better, more streamlined, more efficient molecular arrangement to take the place of DNA? Perhaps a whole new cellular controlling and reproducing mechanism could do a lot more than DNA is presently capable of, things that evolution just hasn’t gotten around yet to shaping DNA for.

Given these possibilities, science is definitely interested and is devoting more and more resources into developing XNA life. A research group in California has already come up with an “alien DNA” which retains the basics of the DNA helix but uses un-natural enzyme elements in place of the familiar adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine elements. Eventually, the whole structure of DNA could be re-done, as to make it more simple and efficient. (DNA is now seen to be something of a clunky, cobbled-together-over-time mechanism rather typical of evolution, something akin to the various Microsoft Office products like Word and Excel; it was pieced together over many years, not designed from scratch to be the most simple and elegant way of accomplishing what it does).

The problem is this: we will soon be experimenting with new forms of super-life that might do all kinds of wondrous things, like grow wheat and carrots and peaches with only a fraction of the water, soil nutrients and warm temperatures now required, or produce re-grown arms or knee joints that are better than the ones that went bad on us. However, in perfecting xenobiology techniques, we will also introducing the ability to release new forms of life into the eco-system that our own bodies (and every other living thing’s body) will not recognize. Wallace says that XNA “could well be invisible to Earth life, not perceived as a threat because it doesn’t produce any of the carbohydrates and peptides that our and cells defenses respond to.”

So, put on your Doctor Evil cap . . . take a common infectious virus or bacteria, and replace the DNA with XNA. You now have something that can cause the same grief and damage to humans as the old-fashioned bugs, but will be invisible to all of their internal defense mechanisms. There will be no immunity whatsoever to an XNA germ.

Now we’ve entered the big leagues of evil. Now we have something that might truly wipe human-kind off the map, for good. You might ask, could humans re-design themselves with XNA genes that would recognize the new bugs and activate the immune system against them? I’m not an expert on this, but my rough sense is that it would take a whole lot longer to come up with an XNA version of a human than an XNA version of a virus, given how much more complex a human is compared to a virus. It’s akin to one of those cheap-offense / expensive defense war scenarios, where a new weapon can be countered, but it costs a lot more to stop it than to use it. Basic economics thus gives the offense the advantage in such a situation, and basic laws of complexity and chaos would probably give an XNA bug the advantage over a complex thing like a human being. We wouldn’t have enough time to engineer a cure.

Wallace explores another evil XNA scheme. Come up with a simple XNA life form, perhaps a modified bacteria that could live on human tissue (plenty of bacteria that can now do that), and design it to produce a poisonous substance. So you could then pick up a seemingly harmless bacteria, perhaps a gut bacteria (like the infamous H Pylori which causes ulcers in some people, but modified with XNA), and it could slowly poison you to death. There are probably plenty of other imaginative ways to stamp human-kind out using XNA technology. Wallace says that at least in theory, this all might become possible in 10 years.

About the only optimism that Wallace can muster in regard to the XNA threat is that scientists and their governmental and institutional overseers will probably “take great care”. I hate to be cynical, but didn’t the 19th Century inventors of dynamite (Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Peace Prize) and the machine gun say something like that? We now have CRISPR technology for DNA editing, a technology that is rapidly getting cheaper and easier to use; it’s starting to occur to government security people that terrorists could get their hands on this technique and come up with some nasty stuff (U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently called genome editing techniques like CRISPR a potential weapon of mass destruction). If Wallace is right, then XNA is to CRISPR what the hydrogen bomb was to the early nuclear bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Of course, perhaps Wallace is wrong, perhaps XNA life can still be stopped somehow by the body’s natural defenses. Maybe it won’t be any worse than whatever mischief we can now do with CRISPR. But maybe it will be (Wikipedia says that a hypothetical XNA organism will have “different base pairs and polymerases and has an altered genetic code [that] will hardly be able to interact with natural forms of life on the genetic level. Thus, these xenobiological organisms represent a genetic enclave that cannot exchange information with natural cells.”) Bottom line for now, keep your eyes out for more about XNA in the coming years. Civilization has had the power to end itself for many years now, and is possibly already on the path to doing so (e.g., climate change). It might soon be able to take down the entire human race as well.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:30 pm      

  1. Jim, Oddly enough, this is a topic I too have been thinking about recently, i.e., the destruction of the human race (or huge parts of it). But, as usual, I think along somewhat different lines than you do. I must also confess that this will be a jumble of tho’ts about this topics, not a well-thought-out, orderly approach to whether or not humans will survive some “master upheaval” that affects the human race.

    I wonder why it is that some people worry about the sun dying or the earth being hit by an asteroid and causing most everything to die off, humans being killed off, and/or all such worries. If any one of these things happens, we’ll be gone in a flash and that will be that. Those who think a life follows this one will proceed to that life; those who think nothing follows this life will have no problems anymore; there will be nothing for them.

    I tend to think that it’s likely inevitable that at some point our species of humans WILL die off. The Neanderthals did and so did other human species. However, seems they did not die off completely because I’ve read recently (again, and as usual, I have no reference for this tho’t as I have forgotten where I read it) that the Neanderthals’ DNA has survived in people living today, as surely must the DNA of other species still survive somewhere in our own DNA.

    Recently, I was watching a couple of programs on Alaska and “deep woods” areas that still exist in the U.S. (I found this a believe it or not and had to see what it was all about.) And, yes, indeed there are more people than one might think who prefer to live alone (or with a few family members) in areas where the only “neighbors” are wild animals; any humans are miles and miles away. I found myself thinking while watching these programs that should something happen where the rest of the world (or part of it) would be destroyed, there are always these people, surviving alone or in small groups to repopulate the world.

    And here again, I must add another illogical tho’t. We tend to think that the dinosaurs are long gone millions of years ago. But from what I read, scientists tend to think that birds (ALL of them; I say maybe some more likely than others) are what is left of the dinosaurs these days. I’ve read that in “dinosaur days” mammals existed, running around underneath the feet of those huge dinosaurs. There seems to be an example of one species being “wiped out”, but not completely; and another thriving as a result; enough time passes and the reverse happens. Why could not something similar happen with Xenobiology and CRISPR?

    It occurs to me that most, if not all, of the various tribes and peoples who tend to live alone in areas where only wild animals live call themselves “people”. Sure, the word differs according to the language, but the translation into English almost ALWAYS comes back to the word “people”. I’ve tho’t about that and realized what it must have been for those original people who traveled from the center in Africa where the human species originated into areas of the earth where no humans had ever existed. Wherever humans went they were the only ones who were human; thus they tho’t that they were the ONLY “people” on the earth. Made sense to call themselves “people”. (Or their version of what that word translated to.)

    I find myself also wondering: If humans can create “life forms” of various kinds, a “xenobiology” (or CRISPR technology) as these individuals working on this kind of thing call it, how is it they do not realize that they themselves are “creators”. This tho’t sets me to thinking about whether or not beings from other dimensions could not be doing to the human species what the human species is currently doing­­creating other species of life. In the case of beings in other dimensions they would be “working on” humans. (I can hear the laughing from here and/or the “this woman is totally MAD!” also from here. Regardless.) This sets me to thinking that it could be that these humans working on various other life forms are themselves “Gods” to those “other life forms”, a contradiction of sorts when it comes to the question of whether or not there is a God. (I’ve brought this up before and continue to do so because no one seems to even acknowledge the idea, must less consider answering the questions of whether or not we ourselves are “god(s)”. Could be that my question is so outlandish that it is not worth consideration.)

    Another wonder: Why is it that all such creations by humans are generally considered “evil” or the death of the human race, etc.? Could not the creation of some of the new species be “good”? Just wondering.

    Perhaps it’s just me who thinks this way; I admit to little if any science in me. (And any mathematical ability is a foreign thing to me.) So, I admit to being the odd “man” out here; but I wonder: If I can think of these things, why can’t scientists and mathematicians give some tho’t to these things?

    But in the end my tho’t generally is that it will be someone like young fanatics of some sort (be they religious or scientific or mathematical), or even some young person running a government who simply MUST show how powerful he (or she) is. Here I would consider the percentage higher on the “he” side rather than on the “she” side altho women are not completely excluded from this idea. I say also “younger” for the simple reason that the young (having once been young myself and thus understanding that part of life) tend to be only too willing to go ahead with things before giving them the tho’t that experience brings.

    I’m not going to worry too much about whether the human race as we know it now will be wiped out during my lifetime. I doubt it. If it is, I still am not going to worry about it as I’ll be gone in a flash and won’t have time to worry about it.

    I come to the conclusion here that not only is this comment not logical or orderly in its thinking, it is also badly written. Obviously, these tho’ts are not well tho’t out and not a comment worthy of matching your tho’ts here. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — April 22, 2016 @ 8:59 pm

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