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Some time far in the future, biologists develop a compiler targeting DNA. We could now create any kind of lifeform we wanted.

In the process, biologists also disassembled and decompiled human DNA into the language the compiler understood.

Prior to this, we also figured out a way to augment the DNA in every cell of an existing organism — or even replace it entirely, although that wouldn't be very useful.

One of the immediate effects of the compiler, combined with our ability to change the DNA of a living organism, was cancer being cured. They just made DNA verification during mitosis more robust (although this also somewhat stops mutations which, in the long term, means stopping evolution).

How might

  • humanity use this to benefit themselves or solve existing problems through the augmentation of the human body and/or the creation of new lifeforms — e.g. as an alternative to robots?
  • the augmentations and the creation of new lifeforms backfire on humanity?
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    $\begingroup$ Hey Angelsl, welcome to Worldbuilding! You've got an interesting idea there but the possible answers are too broad. Asking how society will change in any amount of detail is too much to ask. $\endgroup$ – Green Sep 3 '15 at 17:18
  • $\begingroup$ worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/21204/… This may be useful to you. $\endgroup$ – Green Sep 3 '15 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ So, the compiler can both turn code into DNA, and turn DNA into code? And this code is readable by humans? I find that hard to wrap my head around. The lack of DNA documentation alone is going to make it take years to figure out how to do anything, and I'm sure QA would be a nightmare (like, literally, think of what a DNA bug would look like). $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Sep 3 '15 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ I like the premise! the question itself needs a little work. I await a modified question! $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Sep 3 '15 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ You could rework the question to ask how humans might use this to improve themselves, which would, I believe, allow this question to be reopened while not changing your intent and not breaking answers. This is of course assuming that my take on your question is correct. Great idea, however. This actually gave me a few ideas and it would be a real shame to not see this question narrowed down. $\endgroup$ – the_OTHER_DJMethaneMan Sep 3 '15 at 18:36
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There's No Free Lunch

The one thing to keep in mind is that everything comes with costs and tradeoffs. You give a good example with cancer vs evolution. Another one to consider is muscles.

Humans are obviously weaker than we could be. Many closely related animals are much stronger than we are - at least by a factor of two. And the reason for that is we traded raw strength for endurance. It's not as flashy, but it worked out better for our ancestors.

So at baseline, we could mix and match attributes, even from animals, but we'd have to take the good with the bad. We could probably make someone super strong... but at the cost of making them fade after a few minutes. Maybe we can enhance senses, but messing with the brain so you can use them impacts intelligence, or increases metabolic requirements. These are all enhancements that might be positive on the short-term individual level, but might be negative when viewed from a longer-term evolutionary standpoint because they remove flexibility to changing conditions.

You also can't just take systems in isolation. Take giving humans wings. It's not just a question of tacking them onto the back - you need to modify pretty much every part of the body. You need a different muscular system, you need to lighten and hollow bones, you need to change the eyes... that's a ton of different inter-connected systems, and it will be fiendishly difficult to modify them all to work correctly together.

Enhanced abilities generally also map to increased calorie requirements. So this type of thing might be common among the elite - who can afford both the treatment and the lifestyle - but 99% of humanity will be unaffected.

Well, Sometimes There Is

The no free lunch thing is generally true. But it's also a generalization, and generalizations have exceptions. Maybe there are muscle designs that are efficient, strong, and give great endurance all at once. It's just that evolution either hasn't chanced upon them yet, or maybe those adaptions would require several negative adaptions first before they could be realized. For example, if your muscles got really strong before your bones, you could rip yourself to pieces.

Over time, experiments and computer modeling might reveal these superior setups, letting us slowly actually improve while at least reducing the tradeoffs. At that point you'd start seeing those used more commonly.

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  • $\begingroup$ One thing to consider is that evolution has adapted the human body to a specific environment that due to our technology we no longer live in. So, we can sacrifice things we no longer need, like the ability to survive on fairly meager caloric intake, in exchange for enhanced capabilities. The largest evolutionary constraint on our mental capabilities and our physical abilities may very well be the energy requirements to have so many neurons or muscle fibers. Since energy is no longer a constraint in modern society perhaps we can make significant improvements on many areas. $\endgroup$ – Mike Nichols Sep 3 '15 at 20:27
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeNichols: That's true, and I'm sure most of the rich would go that way. But come the apocalyspe, most of those 6,000 calorie-a-day super genius-athletes are going to be in a world of hurt. Sure, some of them will use their powers to set up fiefdoms, but a lot are going to starve to death too. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Sep 3 '15 at 20:32
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In the novel Einstein's Bridge, which I used to prop up the center speaker of my first 5.1 surround system, the friendly aliens pass along this ability as a biologic mod in itself. That is, you don't need a computer; the pattern matching stuff is wired into your brain as with a sense such as vision. They can read and write DNA intuatively with their fingertips.

The idea of compiling a high level language is sort-of sound. The metabolism works with lots of indirection and feedback, and any program would be horrible spaghetti code even if expressed in readable shorthand. It would be more like the logic compiler for a PLA, and more problematic.

Backing out a sensible program from evolved DNA will be a mess. At best you'll get notations for representing the common cause-and-effect chains and annotations for charting it out. But, think "circuit diagram" not "list of instructions".

Designed code will be neater, and may be very much like designing a gate-level plan for a CPU chip.


Whatever the form, the point is that existing DNA can be "understood". This might mean specialized computers and lots of simulation, but it will all be spelled out. Even so, the full impact might not be understood because it's so messy.

So any adjustment will itself be buggy and have unintended effects. But that is all "understood" too, and patched again.

I imagine it will become handl-able with the computer analysis and adjustments, but no longer a self-regulating system. Untill the whole genome is eventually rewritten from scratch, it will be dependent on these outside systems for continued stability.


What if your metabolism was like your phone? New updates and fixes, and constant mistakes that are ever changing.

I've wondered on what kind of "apps" people would find to load into themselves. Not new large scale changes, but custom creations using the new programmable framework.

See also: this question.

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You have to consider the genesis of such a development. Human DNA will not be the first to be compilable (save “disassemblable”), so there will be many years of experience with less complex organisms before people would start to alter human cells, embryos or even full-grown organisms.

A technology like that will have a lot of consequences, many of which will further stress traditional ethics. I will not try to completely cover the question in my answer, instead it shall only deal with one aspect that is usually overlooked: genetic art.

When computers were new, some artist saw their potential in developing new art forms and raising the limits on existing ones, e.g. interactive installations, generating fractals or helping in the construction of complex artworks. Computer code itself has less often been considered art and neither has microchip design, although there are counter-examples.

Similar things will happen with and to genetic code. There will be artificial RNA or DNA molecules, other proteins – or polymeres, but that’s off-topic – and viruses that just look or behave “artful”, and there will be proper lifeforms from bacteria to plants and animals that will either be considered artworks by themselves, e.g. chimaeras or fairy-tale “re-creatures”, or are designed to perform , e.g. swarms aligning in pretty patterns. There probably will be the occasional mad artist – which seems more frequent than the mad scientist – who thinks their genetically created disease will count as art, too.

Later on, people will alter their bodies to become artworks like they already do with tattoos, piercings, scars and other permanent body-modification, but also with hairstyles, makeup, body-paint, clothing etc. This will probably be better accepted morally than altering someone else’s genetic code, including one’s offspring.

Genetic art will be covered by copyright, not patents, by the way.


Disclosure: I once planned to write an SF story that dealt with a pioneer of genetic art who financed their expensive facilities that had to be located outside the reach of traditional-moral jurisdictions by also making and selling the most exotic (and obedient and satisfied) prostitutes human clients had ever, well, seen. Their justification would have been that it was more ethical and less dangerous to breed sex slaves than super-soldiers. In the artist’s mind, their side-job creatures weren’t enslaved of course because they were just looking human, not thinking or feeling like one. One prerequisite of this plot was that genetic alteration was too complex, messy and non-determininistic for scientists or engineers, so only artists could actually do it. – Feel free to adopt that idea or part of it. I understand it may sound like the setup for cheap SF porn, though.

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There's a potentially very scary downside to all this: "computer virus" is suddenly not just a figure of speech anymore. If you do this, you've lowered the barrier to entry to creating biological weapons far enough that it's essentially guaranteed at least one person somewhere in the world is going to create and release one.

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