Saturday, December 18, 2010

Biotech is Godzilla (?)

Once again, I am afraid that I have pilfered a song title for a post heading.  It's from a metal band called Sepultura; music that I listened to back in my wild days, my mad existence.  Ok, you've suffered enough.
After stumbling across a few articles online, I've been giving biotech a bit of consideration.  Why plug technology into your body when you can enhance what you already have?  A bit of genetic reworking and you're 20 years old again.  Good news for Furries.  If there's an animal you envy, you might actually be able to become a humanoid version of it.  Imagine buildings constructed from durable, organic material.  Crack in the foundation or a gaping hole in the wall?  No problem.  The building can actually heal itself.  An even wilder scenario puts us with organic cars that replicate by mating.  And we haven't even touched on cloning yet.

We're a long way from that kind of craziness, you might say.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  DOW Chemical made an announcement last month that it may be able to actually grow plastics from plant compounds.  The idea of this kind of method has actually been around for a while now, but it's a nifty theory as it would further alleviate our dependency on oil.  Why stop at plastics?  You could grow your own jacket out of living tissue.  "Victimless leather," further diminishing our need to harvest animals for our own consumption.  In theory, such garments could be made either as supple as silk or as strong as oak bark.  Cloning and genetic engineering are additional processes on the biotech horizon.  I think we all know about Dolly the cloned sheep or remember those images of a hairless mouse with a human ear growing out of its back.  These kinds of things have elicited protests from various precincts, but it's all futile in my view.  Like nuclear power, the genie's already out of the bottle and it's not getting back in.  Human cloning and genetic enhancement will happen.  It's just a matter of time.

Science fiction writers are certainly no strangers to these concepts.  I have vague recollections of a film by David Cronenberg called eXistenZ, wherein a sort of "meat gun" was featured.  The universe of Star Wars novels has a line called The New Jedi Order.  In this post-Return of the Jedi continuity, the familiar heroes face invaders called the Yuuzhan Vong.  This race of beings build all of their technology, from clothes to spaceships, from living matter.  There is also a minor sub-genre of fiction called "biopunk" of which I have read precious little from.  Except for the potential exception of Greg Bear's "Blood Music."  If you want to go back far enough, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was in larger respects a warning about biotech gone awry.

But is it "Godzilla" as Sepultura claims?  Well, I could be a nitpicking geek and point out that Godzilla is a dinosaur mutated by nuclear radiation and not the product of biotech, but that's probably irrelevant.  :)  Godzilla was brought about by human folly.  Could ambition and greed overtake ethics and common sense and produce a scourge upon humanity from biotech?  Of course.  There are any number of potentially detrimental outcomes as a result of any technology.  But ceasing research and development in biotech would be a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

How needed is biotech?  You might want to ask that to someone bound to a wheelchair or an adult child taking care of a parent with Alzheimer's disease.

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