Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

A new startup company, Cambrian Genomics, has enabled the average citizen to modify or create DNA, literally inventing new life forms. Cambrian, the brainchild of Austin Heinz, has found funding from a variety of venture capitalists, raising $10 million to expand the business. Currently, most of Cambrian’s orders come from pharmaceutical companies, but anyone with the money — not an enormous expense, only five to six cents per DNA letter — can design and print whatever their imagination wishes.

Heinz views the technology as more than just the science fiction it would seem to be; he believes it will one day be possible to design and print modified humans — basically, to make designer babies. Of course, the power to design new life raises important ethical issues, and has not just a few people alarmed. As it stands, there are several major problems with the future which Heinz has envisioned.

First, there is currently no real regulation on the technology Cambrian uses. Though the government, in the form of the Food and Drug Administration, plays a certain role in regulating genetic modification, there is not at present a set of definite rules for the modifications enabled by Cambrian. Namely, because it is not the company itself that is modifying organisms, but rather, the third-party who orders them, current laws will not cover Cambrian’s business. This allows anyone with a little money to create absolutely anything, regardless of whether it is actually safe or not; a design for, say, a real-life werewolf might be interesting, but probably not a good thing to let run around. Unless Cambrian itself takes part in regulating the creation of what people want to invent, an unlikely possibility given Heinz’s beliefs about trying to “democratize creation,” then there is no one out there — yet — to prevent what is imagined from literally running wild.

Another issue is that with the expansion of Cambrian, it will become more difficult to screen the DNA that is ordered for suspicious designs. While Cambrian is presently a small enough enterprise that every order is analyzed, ensuring that a design is not for some volatile new pathogen, increased demand makes it possible that there will not be sufficient resources to adequately examine DNA prints, if they are examined at all. Thus, it may be possible that someone of malicious intent (a terrorist, extortionist or other villain) could very easily get their hands on a dangerous new virus of their own design all because there are not enough people on the job to police the volume of orders coming in (which Heinz himself acknowledges).

There are, however, certain benefits in being able to design custom organisms. For example, consistent with Cambrian’s primary business, it is possible for pharmaceutical companies to design an organism with a specific medical function — a cure for disease perhaps. There are also relatively benign applications of the technology, such as creating novelty glow-in-the-dark plants — or maybe animals — at little expense. The more concerning use of the technology is that, if the company moves in the direction Heinz hopes it will, someday (again, not yet) they will be able to produce people’s idealized children.

Heinz claims that this will prevent children from being born with significant genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis, which would cause a lifetime of suffering. Furthermore, if any traits at all are deemed “wrong,” even if they are terrible genetic diseases, it takes no stretch of the imagination to picture even average intelligence, height and strength being eventually written off as “wrong.” The emphasis on idealizing traits encouraged by Cambrian in general and Heinz in particular amounts to eugenics, or controlled breeding with the purpose of improving humanity. This is inherently dangerous because it can easily lead to discrimination against those lacking those traits in spades, namely the existing generation. Now, how far such a scenario may go, or whether it will even happen, is beyond what I can say, but it would be foolish to discount the possibility.

Many fans of science fiction will be able to think of examples of genetic modifications gone wrong — “Jurassic Park” and “Resident Evil” are two series that come to mind — involving disasters that came about when someone with strong motives (curiosity, greed or something else) starts playing with DNA. Indeed, it does not take much material to build a virus, for making zombies or otherwise, and given a little time, the technology will probably advance to the point where dinosaurs may again walk the earth. Yes, these are both from science fiction, but then again, so is Cambrian’s technology — except now it is science fact, so perhaps the warnings of science fiction are more applicable than they may seem at first glance.