July 20, 2011 | 3
In the series “Visions,” science fiction about the very latest research will be paired with analysis looking into the facts behind the fiction. The goal is to marry ripped-from-the-headlines science fiction with analysis into the possibilities hinted at by new discoveries.
The DNA tests of the corpse of the man who tried to kill me were clear. He was the child of my daughter. My 3-year-old daughter.
My Secret Service detail apparently first spotted him at the Iowa primary, and then again in New Hampshire. Something about his eyes, they said. The way he looked at me.
He was killed after the debate in South Carolina, after he fired two shots at me. It was an unusually windy day. I got lucky.
The Secret Service agents weren’t the ones who shot him. They still don’t know who did.
They tell me DNA testing of murder victims isn’t common yet, but more and more states are adopting it. The Secret Service naturally had it at its disposal, as well as access to every federal, state, and local DNA database. That’s when they discovered the impossible.
His face is unmistakably familiar. The hair and the curve of his jaw are strange to me, but the eyes are unmistakable. I’ve seen the face of my future, and it terrifies me.
The swarm of scientists they have investigating the corpse have questions upon questions upon questions. They say the answers they find could help solve the greatest mysteries in science.
There’s only one question on my mind, one that will haunt me to my dying day. Why did my grandson want to kill me?
It’s said that good science fiction predicts the car while great science fiction comes up with the traffic jam. History is full of tales of unforeseen consequences of research and invention — for instance, the field of game theory, originally aimed at analyzing parlor games such as poker, arguably helped either avert or nearly trigger nuclear armageddon during the Cold War by devising the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.
With that in mind, today scientists at Ion Torrent, a unit of Life Technologies in Guilford, Conn., reported developing a new DNA sequencing technology driven by the desire to sequence genomes for $1,000 or less. DNA sequencing has been limited by a number of factors, including the need for imaging — such analysis conventionally relies on fluorescent-labeled molecules, which latch onto the bases making up a DNA strand and help visibly determine their order. To overcome this limitation, the researchers cut out this imaging step — instead, sequencing is performed on a microchip that directly senses hydrogen ions produced during DNA synthesis. The chips, made with semiconductor manufacturing techniques, promise to be low-cost, portable, even disposable, and were used to sequence three bacterial genomes and a human genome, findings detailed in the July 20 Nature.
The future will undoubtedly see DNA analysis become ubiquitous. In the United States, nearly all states store DNA profiles of violent offenders, and when DNA analysis gets fast, cheap and easy enough, one might imagine that unidentified bodies or even everyone at birth will automatically get tested as well, yielding a treasure trove of data.
So far DNA analysis has revealed the ancestors of modern humans interbred with Neanderthals. Who knows what other unexpected findings might turn up?
You can email me regarding Visions at firstname.lastname@example.org.