Having portable diagnostic equipment is the dream of every practical scientist and medic across the world. The ability to identify and isolate specific pathogens or trace contamination sources on the spot has, up until now, been a thing of fantasy. Now, new developments at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has taken us one step closer to a hand-held tricorder of Star Trek fame.
The mobile genome sequence analyser uses Apple based software to enable the user free rein to sequence DNA without the need for heavy laptops or larger equipment in the field. The tiny DNA sequence device is made by Oxford Nanopore and uses iPhone app programming, allowing for ease of data sharing between users even in remote locations.
The lead scientists, Palatnick and Schatz, report that the iGenomics algorithm can map the DNA of viral pathogens such as flu strains, and even identify mutations within the sequences. While this marks the start of exciting health and treatment possibilities, of which I applaud, this is another example of science and technology outpacing the potential legal and moral responsibilities of using such a device.
If this new iPhone periphery were to be reprogrammed to sequence the human genome, what’s to stop unscrupulous rogues taking peoples DNA information and targeting them for nefarious means, such as scaring them into costly and unnecessary healthcare with ‘evidence’ that they carry the DNA profiles associated with certain diseases.
The blackmail potential for such a portable and inexpensive device is astounding. No one wants health or car insurance premiums to soar on the basis of carrying a risky gene, nor would they want their offspring to suddenly discover that they are not biologically related.
This poses a brand-new threat to our society, one which needs regulating before it can do harm. Our genetic information should be protected alongside all our other data deemed private, with high penalties for breaching codes of conduct and ethics.
Added to the ethical considerations of this invention, is the possibility of using our biometric data to access finances or personal details. More and more of us are reliant on fingerprint or facial recognition to unlock our mobile phones or to secure bank applications for online transactions. As technology progresses, so too do the sophisticated scammers, escalating the need for ever more invasive proof of identity.
The one inescapable biometric measure is our DNA. I can see a future where the main threads of the science fiction film, Gattaca, becomes science fact. In this fictional world, only those people whose DNA combinations were selected prior to birth can succeed. Those born naturally are massively disadvantaged, rendering them a second-class citizen and unable to apply for higher level jobs or even access services without proof of enhanced health, fitness and intelligence via pin-prick blood screens wherever they go.
Even potential dates and partners are subjected to a compatibility DNA matching test. As heart-warming as it is to see the naturally born underdog succeed in this hostile environment, it’s worth noting that this worst-case scenario is not that farfetched. What if these new Covid vaccines become the passport to travel or work? If we refuse to have the vaccines, which have already caused serious reaction in those with allergies in the UK, will we be shunned by society as infected until proven otherwise?
As exciting as this new handheld DNA mapper is for health applications, it could be the start of a society based on genetic supremacy, one that is little more than a variation of what Aryan Brotherhood and Eugenics groups intended. We need to speak out while we still can, to protect ourselves from a bleak future that penalises and ostracises the weakest of our society in favour of the strongest. In a world that is finally embracing inclusivity, let us not replace one form of oppression for another.