Avoiding Frankenstein’s Monster: the Virtues of Asking “Should we?” First

“It’s alive!” scream countless b-horror movie scientists standing before the products of their hubris. It is only in that moment, when their monstrosity begins its rampage, that the mad scientist stops to consider if they should have created Frankenstein’s Monster. Of course, this realization comes too late. The ultimate mia culpa comes as It or The Hand or Frankenstein’s Bride paints the camera with a veneer of the viscera that was just seconds earlier the scientist.

And while viruses are not alive in the strictest sense of the word, the threat posed by resurrected viruses of days gone by now is now more real than ever. Recent advances in paleovirology—the study of extinct viruses—mean a new Frankenstein could make her modern-day Prometheus out of reverse transcribing RNA. In the article Darwin’s Surprise, Michael Specter explores the field and its recent advances. Paleovirology could, for example, give us new tools to defeat HIV. It could, on the other hand, allow a bioterrorist to reengineer the Spanish Flu. So you win some, you lose some.

Those facts in mind, I will propose some limits on paleovirology. First, viruses should not be resurrected merely for the sake of doing it; there should be a concrete end in mind when resurrecting a virus. Second viruses should only be resurrected when a clear correlation can be made between endogenous retroviral DNA and a desired trait.

This first stipulation, as Specter writes, “is an entirely new way to look at the purpose of scientific research, which in the past was always propelled by intellectual curiosity, not utilitarian goals.” Were we to follow that old ethos—idly following any and every loose end—paleovirologists might bring back a virus as bad as the Spanish Flu just because, you know, they can. The Spanish Flu, Specter reminds us, killed 50 million people at the end of the First World War. Similarly, he estimates, “smallpox may have killed half a billion during the twentieth century alone.”

Point is, we shouldn’t be hasty.

Having a concrete goal for paleovirology solves this concern because it necessarily limits the retroviruses we give the lazarus treatment to ones which have a beneficial effect. Afterall, what ethics review board would sign off on the smallpox or ebola of yore? Furthermore, the background research necessary to even form a goal in the first place means scientists will go into their research with the knowledge necessary to counteract whatever viral agent rises four days later.

In addition to having a goal, knowledge of what the virus does is vital. Similar to my first stipulation, this one also prevents reproduction of negative viral agents by limiting the set of allowable viruses to those which have known (or at least speculated) effects on the organisms they infect. Since the host organism has lived with the viral DNA and is able to propagate to the present day, the virus in question must not be that harmful, therefore limiting the scope of paleovirology to viruses which won’t murder the wife and brother of its creator/resurrector à la Frankenstein’s Monster.

With these limitations in mind, its important to note that Paleovirology should exist! Even though the potential for harm is great, the potential to improve life is greater; we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater just because it has turned cold and brackish. That said, the potential for harm is still present—the water is cold—but proper regulation and precautions mean the field can move forwards safely. This field could give us the tools we need to defeat HIV once and for all or give us the tools we need to better understand our evolutionary history. The future is promising.

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