Monday, August 17, 2015

Pathways to Asymptotic Genetics

We know enough about genetics to guess how an advanced alien civilization might have passed from our state, a smattering of knowledge and some ideas about the basics, to asymptotic genetics, where they know everything knowable about genetics. Recall that omniscience, the term we use to denote the actual state of scientific knowledge, does not include encyclopedias of data, but validated theories.

Despite the goal of asymptotic genetics being the knowledge of how genetics works, relating everything biological to the genetic code which programmed the organism to create it, there is a mountain of experimental effort needed to unlock this knowledge. Thus, there will be encyclopedias of data, but restricted to those organisms needed to reveal the underlying mechanisms.

The first stage might be the alteration of single genes in a chromosomes. These genes would be selected to have a statistically identifiable or definitive effect. Either the targeted gene causes some problem or improves some lack, as noted by a collection of cases, or the targeted gene is implicated statistically as one of the possible enablers of some problem or some lack. In this case, the targeted gene would have been found preferentially when the problem existed. The implication is that the targeted gene, coupled with a chance event such as a mutation, causes the problem, and since the mutation cannot be prevented without isolating the organism from everything, including cosmic rays, removing those things which facilitate the problem is the best solution to the problem.

The second stage might be an alteration of methylation, in other words, work with the epigenetic code rather than the genetic code. Methylation turns a gene on or off, and can accomplish the same thing as a lack of the gene, and lead to the same type of problem or lack as missing the gene itself can.

Bouncing back and forth between these two stages might occupy a period of time, as there are multiple genes to address, and multiple epigenes as well. In fact, this would continue to be a process, as the relationship between genes, epigenes and defined problems or lacks keeps being filled in.

There would be a second stream. The first stream relates to developing an understanding of what genes code for what phenomena in the development of organisms, but concentrates on negative aspects. The second stream would relate to positive effects that genes have, and enumerating them. This would allow a chromosomal selection, assuming that the alien world’s organisms use chromosomes or something equivalent to them. Anything that was a block of genes which reproduced en masse would serve as a surrogate. Once this understanding was added to the negative effects of genes, chromosomal selection of new organisms could be done. Assuming sex had evolved on the alien planet, or some other means of combining genes from two or more organisms of the same species to make a new organism, there is a possible selection of chromosomes whenever the two or more organisms commit their chromosomes to the next generation organism.

The next stage might be the slicing of chromosomes, so that the melding of two great half-chromosomes into one could be done. Then the logical step is to slice finer and finer, finally getting down to individual gene choices.

Competing with this for attention would be the operations of gene changing. Instead of slicing a gene to remove a block of genes and replacing them with a naturally occurring block from the chromosome of another organism of the same species, using microbiological methods of physically altering a gene in place would be found and perfected. This might be a combination of physical and microbiological methods.

One more stage remains in this portion of the pathway before a major jump occurs. That last stage involves synthetic genes being implanted in the organism of an existing being, These can serve as replacements for an existing gene, but represent a mutation of that gene that evolution had not yet tried, or it could be the insertion of a new block of genes, extending the DNA (or whatever was used) by a small amount, and producing some new protein that somehow improved the fitness of the organism.

The big jump is the alteration of the number or arrangement of chromosomes. This is speciation, except for a few special cases. In a case with duplicated chromosomes, it might be possible to remove the duplicate without creating a new species. In other cases, the alien civilization will have built synthetic life of a new caliber, a new species that never existed before on their planet. It requires the knowledge of how to map genes into proteins into cellular structures into organs and finally the whole organism. A complete knowledge of the ontogeny of this type of organism would have to be available.

The first entries occurring after this jump to speciation might be simply a rearrangement of the chromosomes of existing organisms, but later there would be the creation of new chromosomes, perhaps one new one amidst a slew of old ones, and eventually an entire set of new chromosomes leading to an entirely new organism. Undoubtedly characteristics from previous, well-known, genomes of organisms would be used before something markedly original was tried, but in short order, a new organism from the top down could be created.

Post-speciation genetic engineering will be hard to imagine. Not only the outer form of the organism would be subject to being created, but all the countless steps from cell upwards. The basic purpose of the organism could be used to provide specifications for the design. With this level of genetic engineering, the alien civilization could simply write specifications for what type of organisms they needed for some purpose, and the tools invented in the development of this stage of genetic engineering would deliver it. Just as we now design an automobile, a telephone, a power station, a factory or a building, it will be possible for the alien civilization to design a plant or an animal, to say nothing of microbes.

We have talked about speciation, but there is no word yet for what this type of engineering could produce. The several kingdoms we speak of in taxonomy, being the animal, the plant, and some controversial divisions of single celled organisms, might be supplemented. Animal organisms take their energy from digestion of ingested material, plants, from photosynthesis of solar or artificially produced visible spectrum photons. Some chemotrophs use different chemicals to power their life and activities. It might be possible to build an organism which takes energy a different way, such as via concentrated chemical fuel or electricity.

There may be a further stage, which we cannot know about at this point in our Earth-bound investigations of genetic coding. This would be a stage in which the alien planet changes the coding of the DNA or whatever they use for coding of proteins or other hydrocarbons in the structure of their lifeforms. We do not know if any other coding would work. They would.

A question that relates to our non-observation of aliens that comes from this elaboration of the pathway to asymptotic genetics is this: Are there any minefields along this pathway that would de-rail the progress of the civilization and prevent the civilization from building starships and traveling interstellar distances?

These minefields are so interesting they should be discussed in separate posts. Regard this one as a predecessor, laying an outline down so that minefields can be pointed out and looked at.

One connection, not to a minefield, but to a facet of an alien civilization that passes asymptotic genetics, is to the use of demarcated regions, possibly isolated, of the exterior of alien cities as laboratories where such novel organism can exist and grow, if plants, or exercise their own capabilities, if animals. In the previous blog, entire synthetic ecologies were conceived of, but smaller zones could be used for artistically created plants or animals. Art and creativity in a millennia-old or million-year old alien civilization would take forms we do not classify as art today, but which could become arenas for creativity. Another blog discussed if life in an alien civilization would be boring. It would seem the answer is no.

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