ADVERTISEMENT
  About the SA Blog Network













Assignment: Impossible

Assignment: Impossible


Exploring the area between the unknown and the impossible.
Assignment: Impossible Home

Visions: A Familiar Face

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Email   PrintPrint



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 toohardforscience@gmail.com.

Charles Q. Choi About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





Rights & Permissions

Comments 3 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. toohardforscience 1:48 pm 07/20/2011

    Incidentally, the title of this story is an homage to Edna Buchanan’s “The Corpse Had A Familiar Face.”

    Link to this
  2. 2. Brin Bellway 10:35 pm 07/20/2011

    Here I was thinking it was going to be about prosopagnosia. Ah well, still worth the read.

    Link to this
  3. 3. toohardforscience 8:38 am 07/22/2011

    A question brought up by @rosefox regarded the reliability of DNA testing. An interesting post on the accuracy of this chip can be found here:

    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/07/how-accurate-is-the-new-ion-torrent-genome-really/

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Scientific American Back To School

Back to School Sale!

12 Digital Issues + 4 Years of Archive Access just $19.99

Order Now >

X

Email this Article



This function is currently unavailable

X