Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Genetics and Magic

Magic is a nickname for something impossible to do but easy to imagine and portray. Genetics is just genetics. In an alien civilization, genetic manipulation of their own species may be so costly to do, safely and surely, that it cannot be afforded as a substitute for the random selection of genes that evolutionary breeding patterns provide. The goal can be as explicit as needed, meaning that the alien civilization would like to force evolution in the direction the civilization desires, meaning toward alien citizens with better health, longevity, strength, athleticism, intelligence, appearance, mental stability, and anything else that was considered a positive in their civilization. All that is necessary is for the civilization to figure out exactly how each gene in the genome works, not merely as a correlation with some observed attributes, but how it is awakened during the development of the organism from a zygote to an adult, and what roles it plays in the different cells of the organism, at each stage of its existence. They need to figure out how each variation that might be used affects the organism. This is a very formidable task. But is it out of reach for an alien civilization at the height of their research capability, when resources are plentiful and the existing population has sufficient genius-level members to undertake this research? If an alien civilization which is optimally disposed to be able to accomplish this cannot, the barrier must be universal and no alien civilizations will be able to.

Mechanization of DNA decoding, including epigenetic signals, might help make this feasible. Suppose there are a thousand different types of cells in the alien species. The task of determining the signaling that turns a gene on or off in a unique type of cell has to be determined, first of all. This might mean a thousand runs of a DNA decoding machine, which is negligible in costs. Extracting specific types of cells is also not prohibitive. Thus the map of chemical signaling which occurs during ontogeny is feasible; even we could do it within a century or two. Doing this for related species, numbering a hundred, in order to understand better what the signaling is, is also within cost bounds. Next the source of the signaling has to be found, in neighboring cells, or perhaps in something more distant once the initial equivalent of blood flow starts. Finding what molecule is used for the signaling is a chemical analysis task involving each individual cell type, and with the myriad numbers of molecules in any given cell, simple detection is not going to be a promising path to take.

Instead, some detailed research into the chemical classes of molecules that can be used in signaling epigenetic switching would need to be done, so that some markers that these classes have can be found. Each alien species might have its own, or there could be a sort of convergence. This does not matter as there would have been no contact between alien planets before this stage of civilizational development. In vitro experiments with DNA strands would be needed to narrow down the possibilities and then confirm the right one was detected for any particular transaction.

If we assume there are a thousand cell types, and double that to take into account unique cells in related species, and fifty possibilities for each cell, and ten citizen-years to solve one combination, that is a million citizen years of scientific and technical talent. Over two centuries, this means that there would have to be a staffing of fifty thousand scientists and technicians on this task. This is not a large amount for a population greater than a few billions. Thus, the signaling determination should be able to be accomplished over two centuries of work. Likely after the first ten percent was completed, ways to expedite the process could be invented, and the time reduced. But since the initial upper bound is feasible, this would not change the result.

Finding the source of the chemical signals would be a simultaneous research area, once the initial ones were found. Finding the source of these molecules in neighboring cells would not be anything like determining the chemical nature of the signaling molecules. Thus, it would be feasible to make a complete map of the development of cells within the alien species and within some related species.

Then comes the evaluation of the effect of each of the genes. At this point, knowledge is available of which genes are functioning in which cells, and this comes from knowing when they turn on and off. The effect of a genetic variant would be isolated to those cells in which it plays a role. Some genes would be functioning in every cell in the organism, and this might be the majority of them. Genes which function in all cells are likely doing the same thing in a wide variety of organisms, and these genes would be deciphered early in the genetic research period. However, these are not likely to be the genes that affect the qualities desired by the civilization for its successive generations of adults. Variations in these genes are likely to be fatal. There may be a few that have an effect on adult aliens, but the number would have to be quite small to have not been filtered out by the many generations that the alien species and all its predecessors underwent evolutionary pressure. Thus, work could be concentrated on a few genes in locations that were already found.

At this point, gene expression would have to be understood, if it was not already. That means that besides the map of gene signaling that was created, there would have to be a listing of what proteins are produced in each cell by each combination of genes, assuming that it is a many-to-one relationship in most situations. This listing should be deducible once the basic rules for the translation of genes to proteins are worked out. This again is not a show-stopper.

After the understanding is generated of what proteins are altered by a genetic variation, there would next be the task of determining the activity of each protein in a cell. What does the original protein do and what does the variation do? Most likely it is the same function, but not necessarily. If there are multiple copies of a gene, meaning many sources of a single protein, having a variation of one of those copies would produce a different protein without diminishing greatly the number of the originals. Thus, in some small set of situations, it might be necessary to re-engage the research task that determined the activity of each protein originally, in the baseline alien cell.

Neither the determination of the effect of a genetic variation, nor the unusual case of a single variation of a multiple copy gene, seem to take anywhere near the effort needed for the determination of the ontogeny of the organism down to the genetic signaling level. This can only mean that the determination of what gene copies the alien civilization would want to install in its citizens can be done, and it is not magic. Remaining to be addressed is the implementation of this knowledge.

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