It’s dangerous to treat DNA as computer code, professor warns

What: While the excitement of the immense capabilities of synthetic biology is at all-time high, one UK professor is warning against viewing DNA as computer code.

We’ve been trying to do just that ever since we discovered that genes represent pieces of code written in the language of DNA with four chemical letters: A, C, T and G.

Progress has been remarkable. In 2010, US researcher and entrepreneur Craig Venter (the father of genome sequencing) and his team created the first self-replicating synthetic organism.

How: The advent of genome editing techniques with tools like CRISPR-Cas9 meant that it is now possible to make all sorts of DNA edits. Tests have been made in organisms like mosquitoes, fruit flies, ants, etc.

Earlier in 2019, a Chinese scientist opened Pandora’s Box, announcing the first (first publicly known) gene-edited human embryos causing a massive uproar in the scientific community.

What’s more, the plummeting costs and the user-friendliness of such technologies have made them increasingly accessible to anyone curious enough to peek into the uncanny world of gene editing.

“It looks therefore as though we are on course for an explosion in bioengineering, the biological equivalent of what we now call software engineering.”, says John Naughton in a Guardian article. Naughton is a professor at UK’s Open University who researches the public understanding of technology.

Why: He cautions, however, that we need to apply extra care when dealing with matters as sensitive as DNA (not to mention human DNA) because most computer code we’re churning out at a torrid pace is rarely free of bugs and errors. That’s why it needs constant updates and patches, he says.

“The trouble is that what is standard practice in software won’t work in bioengineering. Biological code, like computer code, will inevitably have programming bugs in it for the simple reason that we’ve never found a way of writing bug-free code of any complexity.”, Naughton explains.

“In other words, choosing to play God might not be a smart career move for mere humans.”