Yesterday I mentioned Symbiotic Households, an art project imagining genetically engineered mosquitoes that provide mood stabilizing compounds to a population plagued by worries caused by climate change. Today on twitter I saw a link to a US patent application filed by Microsoft about engineering parasites to monitor and maintain human health. The possible engineered parasites covered in the application include:
mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, bed bugs (Cimicidae Cimex lectularius), midges (such as Ceratopogonidae), other blood sucking arthropods, annelids or leeches, nematodes such as Ascaris lumbricoides (roundworm which typically invades the gastrointestinal tract and lungs), pinworms such as Enterobius vermicularis (gastrointestinal tract, colon, fingertips), whipworms such as Trichuris trichiuria (gastrointestinal tract), flukes or trematodes such as Fasciola hepatica, Fasciolopsis buski (intestinal fluke) and schistosomes (liver and gallbladder), tapeworms or cestodes such as those from the genus Taenia (gastrointestinal tract), hookworms, heart worms, roundworms, lice (head, body, and pubic), and the like.
Since parasites are already good at living in or on the human body, theoretically they can be engineered to not harm you while keeping track of what’s going on and secreting medicines as you need them.
Parasitism and symbiosis are closely related in evolution and there is increasing evidence for the importance of all sorts of microorganisms and even parasitic worms being important for maintaining a healthy immune system. But when these relationships are engineered by Microsoft instead of evolved over millions of years there are a lot of difficult unknowns that would make me hesitate to be a beta tester, from horror movie outbreak scenarios to more mundane feature creep and frequent updates. No one knows what form parasite/symbionts will take, what they will be able to do for us in the future in our bodies or in our homes, but when truth and fiction are intertwined it’s certain to be an exciting time.