Scorpion Grants My Wish: An Infectious Disease Episode

Last week I hoped Scorpion, the new CBS show about a team of geniuses that assists the Department of Homeland Security, would focus on an infectious diseases as well as other problems. Well, this week they granted my wish and they were immersed in responding to a pathogen, related to the common cold virus, synthesized specifically to infect the California governor's daughter and a few others.

What the Scorpion team was facing was a biohacker who employed synthetic biology for a sinister purpose. Synthetic biology, the realm of biology that deals with the creation of novel genetic sequences, holds tremendous promise for curing disease, specifically targeting therapy as part of personalized medicine, and revolutionizing biotechnology. 

However, just like almost every trade, there are dual-use concerns with the rise of synthetic biology, the biohacker movement, and DIY biology. I share some of these concerns but have an overriding fundamental belief that all these developments are essentially good and representative a major advice for mankind. 

While the show requiring some suspension of disbelief--an antidote was made in two hours--it is good to see these issues penetrating into popular culture.

 

Don't Get Too Wound Up About Synthetic Biology

I just finished the book The Windup Girl  by Paolo Bacigalupi a dystopian novel set in the future.  The book was recommended by a physician colleague who knew of my interest in bioterrorism and plagues. 

The story of The Windup Girl revolves around agricultural company executives who produce engineered foods ("calorie men"), corrupt government officials, and an engineered human (aka a windup girl) winding there ways through a futuristic Thailand.

The book mentions past plagues that have destroyed crops (e.g. blister rust, cibiscosis) and infected humans leading "generippers" to utilize the tools of synthetic biology to devise new organisms (including humans) resistant to these pathogens. An outbreak of a new disease also transpires leading government officials to take action in a village in which victims resided. 

I found the book to be engaging despite the fact that, at times, it was reminiscent of Frankenstein in its depiction of "excesses" of industrial society and skewed portrayal of the promise of synthetic biology.

However, bioterrorism directed at agriculture is not fictional and is a major concern. Not only can agricultural products be used as vehicles to deliver noxious substances (e.g. mercury injected into citrus fruits), but contaminating them with specific pathogens can lead to food shortages and major economic disruptions.

The promise of crops, animals, and--eventually--humans impervious to infection would be an unequivocal life-enhancing utopian development.

While some may see these developments leading to a dystopian future, I believe it is fictional.

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