Truth Stranger Than Fiction

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.

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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.

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For truth stranger than fiction, see the humoristic "plausible schemes" suggested by David Jones, aka Daedalus in his column in New Scientist and Nature. Ironically, many of these seemingly insane schemes of him have later been seriously suggested, including ideas like the space elevator, uses of genetically engineered organisms, and so on.

Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_E._H._Jones

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 16 Jan 2011 #permalink

I generally disagree that truth can be stranger than fiction, because whatever strange truth might be out there, somebody will make a fictitious claim of it being the work of a vast conspiracy of invisible zombie reptilioids (in black helicopters) as part of a plot against their enemies,the mysterious and benevolent reticulums FROM SPACE.

(most of the above taken from actual conspiracy theories)

I agree the unknowns of introducing even a seemingly simple bio-engineering product into the extremely complex human system make real-human testing very risky.

But you know it's going to happen. The idea of solving human problems by simply removing the stress factor is very delusional. It's simply bio-engineered denial.

We need to get the messages from our bodies and minds and understand them, in order to formulate effective responses to changes in our environment.

I can imagine such bio-engineered compounds being helpful in treating disorders such as PTSD or panic attcks, but the compounds would have to be administered very carefully, and different individuals may respond differently to the same treatment.

It reminds me of when the doctors gave my late father valium to calm his nerves during his detox treatment from alcohol. They expected him to become lazy and nap a lot.

No such luck. He couldn't sleep for two days and nearly had a nervous breakdown.

So trying to oversimplify cause and effect in complex systems can be a debilitating mistake to make.

Really? Microsoft files a patent to develop bugs and no one makes the obvious joke?? My - you are a mature group. Good thing I'm here.