Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


16.1.3  Genetic Hybrids and Synthetic Genes

Where will participative evolution lead? Eventually ETs, as man, will no longer be satisfied merely with correcting errors and improving upon the old models. Rather, they will have the urge to go nature one better, to create new synthetic organisms for specialized purposes.

Dr. Paul Berg of Stanford University (one of the first scientists to perform "recombinant DNA" experiments) in 1973 mixed together fragments of a bacterial "plasmid" (tiny circlets of DNA imparting resistance to antibiotics) with genes from a virus that produces cancerous virus in monkeys, in a single test tube. These combination virus-plasmids were then allowed to invade normal E. coli bacteria, which soon began churning out viral protein. Using simple gene splicing, Dr. Berg had created a "genetic hybrid" organism -- a cross between a cancer-producing virus and a bacterium -- which had never before existed in nature. The methodology, says Berg, "is simple and can probably be done as a high school science experiment."2365

Since 1973, scientists have used plasmids to introduce mouse and frog DNA into bacterial cells. It appears quite possible to create hybridized plants and animals, beings not found in nature.* It would be, as one participant at the 1976 Asilomar Conference on recombinant research jokingly put it, "like crossing an orange with a duck."

Much as man learned long ago to domesticate and cultivate the lifeforms of his world, sentient bioneering races will learn to exploit the gene as well for their own purposes.

As regards most biochemical substances, mankind is still in the "food gathering" stage. Many needed hormones, such as insulin, must be laboriously collected from scores of individual animal organs. But this situation has begun to change in the last few years. Scientists have succeeded in transplanting a gene for rat insulin into bacterial cells which is reproduced when the cells divide, and it will soon be possible to switch the gene on as well. By cultivating insulin-making DNA, keeping it supplied with the raw materials and energy it needs, hybridized cells can be harvested for hormones much as a farmer reaps a field of wheat.

Along these lines, Drs. Herbert Boyer, Arthur Riggs, and Wylie Vale spliced the gene for somatostatin into the DNA of E. coli bacteria. Somatostatin is a hormone in the brains of mammals that inhibits the secretion of pituitary growth hormone. The hybridized bacteria multiplied and began producing somatostatin in copious quantities. Before, nearly half a million sheep brains were needed to isolate 5 milligrams of somatostatin. Using the E. coli "hormone factory," scientists required only 8 liters of bacterial culture to obtain the same amount.

The key to genetic cultivation is the synthetic gene -- artificial nucleic acid sequences that have never occurred in nature. The first total synthesis of a complete gene starting from scratch was first accomplished by Nobelist Har Gobind Khorana and his team at MIT. The experiment involved the re-creation of a "tyrosine transfer RNA gene" found in E. coli which is 207 nucleotide base pairs in length. While it took the MIT group nearly a decade to do it, they are confident that genes as complex as those of humans (1000-3000 nucleotide base pairs long) will be amenable to synthesis in the next fifty years.2646 It is then a relatively simple step to the production of "unnatural" genes.

With the ability to create artificial genomes with specific desired characteristics, alien bioneers can better exploit the whole animal kingdom. Domesticated beasts with augmented intelligence and specially modified limbs and organs might function as excellent animal servants. Genetically altered horses might be used as intelligent, self-steering, self-feeding, self-cleaning, self-reproducing personal transport vehicles. Arthur C. Clarke points out that something resembling a compact elephant might be preferable in this regard, since it is the only quadruped with sufficient dexterity to carry out delicate handling operations while remaining a quadruped.55 Such animal slaves should be herbivorous because "carnivores are much too expensive to feed and might take a fancy to their riders."

Lesser lifeforms may be pressed into service by ETs. Genetically upgraded birds could be used as aerial messengers and scouts, and would be trained to speak some simple language. Traitor fish could be developed to steer schools of their unsuspecting fellows into the waiting nets of fishermen. Vicious insects, giant crustaceans and monstrous mollusks could be bred as offensive weapons of tactical warfare.

Freeman J. Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University has suggested the possibility of exotic, genetically-modified artificial mining organisms, trolling the seas of planets for valuable minerals and metals. Says Dyson:

Oysters might extract gold from seawater and secrete golden pearls. A less poetic but more practical possibility is the artificial coral that builds a reef rich in copper or magnesium. Other mining organisms would burrow like earthworms into mud and clay, concentrating in their bodies the ores of aluminum or tin or iron, and excreting the ores in some manner convenient for human harvesting.27

At least one mining company already uses bacteria to help recover copper metal from a variety of low-grade ores.88

The extraterrestrial bioneers may themselves be the subjects of genetic modification. Instead of creating expensive, cumbersome artificial environments to sustain their lives after planetfall, ETs may decide to undergo a change in basic physical form enabling them to survive the natural conditions encountered on each new world. Conforming to the alien environment should facilitate both exploration and first contact, should it occur, with sentient natives.2651

Advanced xenobiotechnology will allow extraterrestrial astronauts to decide which form was most convenient. Should they wish to explore and inhabit Jupiter for a period of time, for example, they could infect themselves with a carefully tailored virus containing modified genetic material. Cells in their bodies would be taken over by the intruders. Some would metamorphose into, say, jovian "gasbag beasts," while the rest would simply die away and be sloughed off like molted skin. Later, the gasbag genes might be replaced with new ones coded to produce a large-chested surface creature capable of breathing the 0.1% oxygen atmosphere of Mars. Finally, their survey completed, the ETs would be returned to their normal spacefaring designs using yet another application of a different transmutation virus -- perhaps a small, agile humanoid form with a dexterous prehensile tail and a high tolerance for conditions of low gravity and sudden atmospheric decompressions.

When first contact with extraterrestrials occurs, we won’t know if the aliens are truly as they appear or rather inhabit genetically doctored bodies. Perhaps those tan-skinned humanoids we just shook hands with are really a race of chlorine breathers with twelve greasy tentacles and porcupine-bristled fur!


* In 1976, researchers at Florida Atlantic University at Boca Baton created the first "interkingdom protoplast" which they call the "plantimal."1617 Joined were a human cell nucleus and a tobacco cell nucleus, and, in another experiment, a human nucleus and a carrot nucleus. Extraterrestrial bioneers may have developed photosynthetic meatlike "blobs" to serve as protein livestock, shapeless amorphs which convert sunlight directly into edible meaty material. Autotrophic animals such as "plant men" similarly may be possible.


Last updated on 6 December 2008