DNA Pollution: Genes Gone Wild

Let’s keep this simple. This is not a lesson on DNA. You know that DNA is the stuff that makes up your genes, your “blueprint” that makes you uniquely you. So this may come as a surprise to you, but DNA can be a pollutant too.

DNA pollution happens when genes, usually those not found in nature, flow uncontrolled in the wild. One thing to remember here: DNA doesn’t die. It lingers. Cells can die, but their DNA can hang around for a long time. And once genes are out there, you can’t take them back.

DNA can be natural, like your hair color, or unnatural, like engineered or synthetic DNA. Tinkering with DNA goes on everywhere in biotech, research labs and in do-it-yourself basements. Yes, there are rogues in their cellars and garages messing with DNA. It may seem like one confusing bowl of genetic soup. Well, sometimes it is. But what happens when unnatural or engineered “designer” DNA is dumped?

Let’s just speculate with “What if?” scenarios. What could be wrong with that? With all the false news out there, we don’t need fake scientific facts to confuse and confusticate (yeah, I know it’s a made-up word). But use your imagination; there is nothing wrong with constructing alternative scenarios, is there? As a writer of speculative fiction, I believe that what is imagined can be real. And what is real can be imagined. But no genetic aberrant zombies or mutated monsters for me, PLEASE!

So, I’ll try to be science-based and evidence-based. Oh no! Aren’t those two phrases banned? Phrases that policy analysts were instructed to avoid? OK, I take them back.

But, I digress. Just take it from me, rogue genetic material is not something you want in your community. At best, it will be scrambled up enough in the sewage treatment plants so that the blueprint no longer makes any sense. At worst, if it persists, it goes hitch-hiking. It might find some annoying bacteria on which to hitch a ride, and in the process pass on a gene, like antibacterial resistance, or worse still, a gene that dampens immunity. Those transformed bacteria are bad enough for healthy young adults, but potentially much nastier for older people and kids.

So, you might now be asking, “But how can that happen?” Take, for example, a hypothetical biotech company. There are plenty in New England, and many of them create biologic drugs that are produced by engineered genes. These therapeutic substances are usually made from living cells that have “designer” or “recombinant” rDNA inserted in them. Those living cells eventually get broken up (to release the therapeutic stuff inside). In doing so, they also release the engineered “designer DNA,” or rDNA, that contains special instructions.

The EPA authorizes state governments to issue disposal permits for industry. In a state like Rhode Island, the local regulators might be told, “They are only dead cells, so no harm done.” Regulators have to rely on the knowledge that a company shares with them. So the task may be left up to a local regulator to decide on the discharge of rDNA slurry found in biotech wastewater. How much do regulators know? The exact details are likely to be company secrets. But what if the rDNA was potentially deadly?

Who in Rhode Island has oversight over permits for sewage disposal from biotech facilities? It isn’t always the most knowledgeable person. The local regulator might be the sewage commissioner, who might also be the town manager and perhaps might also be a state senator. In other words, it is likely he or she could be wearing a number of hats. A Jack or Jill of all trades. A master of none.

After the slurry piles up at one of Rhode Island’s 19 wastewater treatment facilities, the sludge is processed and transformed into reusable “biosolids” that are touted as a benefit for the environment. It is often applied as fertilizer to soil in public parks, playgrounds, ball fields and other locations. You get the picture. It’s in the dirt beneath our feet, possibly laden with rDNA-enhanced soil bacteria. Soccer anyone?

And remember, genetic and DNA pollutants can linger. Rogue genetic material can hitch a wild ride on an annoying but wimpy bacteria, transforming it into a deadly superbug. Perhaps one with increased virulence and even more contagious in humans. Microbes can be weaponized in labs and serendipitously in nature. “Naked” DNA can even swap places between very different varieties of microbes. And the microbe doesn’t have to be alive to share its DNA.

In the world of rogue DNA, what goes around comes around.

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