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I'm writing a dystopia where the authoritarian state messes with people's biology, like in Brave New World.

Can they do alter people biologically in some way that makes alcohol not a thing in society any more? Either people would be immune to its effects, or find it nauseating/unappealing.

This question is similar, and has some starting points, but the conditions of my world are different.

It doesn't have to be a gene. A long-lasting pharmacological intervention would work for the plot, though a short-lasting one (a daily pill) would not.

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    $\begingroup$ There is nothing a gene can do to ensure that all the people find the effects of ethyl alcohol unappealing. However nauseating an activity is, some people will find it appealing. For example, I have heard that there are people who find riding roller coasters appealing. They even pay for it! $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 7, 2023 at 19:14
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP, Not true. I've researched this extensively, and can provide an answer. $\endgroup$ Feb 7, 2023 at 19:20
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    $\begingroup$ @RobertRapplean: You mean that no people find riding roller coasters appealing? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 7, 2023 at 19:20
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP, if all people got off of roller coasters puking and unable to stand, I would suspect that those who appreciated them would be reduced to a number that did not support the building of roller coasters. $\endgroup$ Feb 7, 2023 at 19:52
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    $\begingroup$ The idea has been used before -- The swansong of Dame Horse by Ted Thomas, Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact , June 1971 $\endgroup$ Feb 8, 2023 at 21:52

4 Answers 4

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There are numerous genetic qualities that cause this effect.

One of them is called flushing. When eliminating alcohol from your body, one of the intermediate stages is to convert the alcohol to acetaldehyde. Your body quickly breaks that down, too, preventing it from accumulating. In some people, however, that second part doesn't work, so the acetaldehyde builds up in an uncomfortable manner.

This genetic variation is relatively common in Asia, and is the chemical basis of the drug disulfiram, which was tried as a treatment for alcoholism for decades. Serious alcoholics would drink through the flushing, sometimes hospitalizing themselves.

Another path would be to block alcohol's ability to release endorphin, or to block your ability to respond to endorphins while drinking. Endorphin is a shortcut to learning, teaching our body that excitement and exertion are beneficial to us. Alcohol simulates exertion and excitement, making us release endorphin, tricking us into thinking that alcohol is beneficial to us.

This is the basis of using naltrexone and noloxone for the treatment of alcoholism and other opioid addictions. Initial attempts at taking advantage of this knowledge produced little benefit because, once you stopped taking the drug, the desire to drink rebounded. Later, with the development of The Sinclair Method, Pavlovian extinction was harnessed to reduce this specific cause of alcoholism.

Thus, if you want a genetic shift that would eliminate the use of alcohol, you should have alcohol also release endorphin blockers that prevent Pavlovian conditioning from taking root in the first place. Either that, or heighten the neurotoxic side-effects like dizziness so that the drinker is driven to puke like a sea-sick land lubber before they get seriously drunk.

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  • $\begingroup$ Are there known genes that mimic the effects of naltrexone and noloxone? $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Feb 7, 2023 at 21:01
  • $\begingroup$ There are numerous genetic markers that have been implicated in a person being susceptible to alcoholism, but their specific function is always debated. Completely and permanently blocking people's ability to respond to opioids would have horrific health effects. They do three-month noloxone injections, but this is only done when an addiction is already having horrific health effects. Also, this doesn't prevent drinking, it just prevents addiction. $\endgroup$ Feb 7, 2023 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ @RobertRapplean we're talking about alcohol though. It's just that our current, IRL drugs are limited in not differentiating between alcohol and opioids. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Feb 8, 2023 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok, you misunderstand the problem. Alcohol is addictive because it releases endorphins, which are endogenous morphine; opioids we, ourselves, release. Because of this, doctors have to treat alcoholism as an opioid addiction. $\endgroup$ Feb 8, 2023 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ And if the treatment/therapy doesn't work for you, you go missing/become solyent green. $\endgroup$
    – boatcoder
    Feb 9, 2023 at 15:24
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Alcohol intolerance induced by gene manipulation

Knock down the gene encoding for aldehyde dehydrogenase enzyme, which clears acetaldehyde produced in alcohol metabolism. Reduction in its activity leads to alcohol intolerance, a condition in which alcohol causes unpleasant hangover-like symptoms immediately after ingestion. For inducing alcohol intolerance by gene manipulation, you need an inactivation construct for the gene, packaged into a viral vector (a carrier virus) that targets hepatocytes (liver cells) with high efficiency, and a means to deliver it into the bloodstream.

Delivery could present a problem as it most likely would have to be intravenous, but your dystopian authorities can probably just order people to go through the procedure. Or maybe they manage to develop a vector that can be administered with an injection that could be secretly added to the general vaccination program. It would be anything but safe, and a lot of people would die of hepatitis caused by the side effects of infecting liver cells with the virus, but a totalitarian regime would hardly care.

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    $\begingroup$ Why would a lot of people die of hepatitis if it is administered by medical professionals, whether as part of the general vaccination program or not? I'm not qualified to assess the first part of the answer, but hepatitis is normally only a risk with inadequataely sterilised, shared injection hardware. Or is the targeting of liver cells the issue? $\endgroup$ Feb 7, 2023 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055 The viral vector is likely to cause inflammation, especially because it needs to be efficient enough to infect and deliver its payload to almost all cells in the liver. Some cells will be infected so many times they can't survive, which will trigger an immune reaction that can be fatal. $\endgroup$
    – Cloudberry
    Feb 7, 2023 at 21:43
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, that makes sense. Suggest that the answer will be more readable by splitting out the first 3 sentences into one paragraph, then put the delivery considerations - including the extra detail in the comment - into a second paragraph. $\endgroup$ Feb 7, 2023 at 21:46
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    $\begingroup$ It is worth mentioning, that quite few ethnicity suffer from alcohol intolerance essentially by default to some extent. What this means there are most likely already known genes which affect this and it could be easy to write the story around the government comparing these genes to produce the ultimate antabus gene. $\endgroup$ Feb 8, 2023 at 8:23
  • $\begingroup$ As mentioned several times already, the gene simulating antabus has been identified. $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Feb 8, 2023 at 13:38
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In addition to the genetic changes mentioned by the other responses, there are mutations that will make alcohol just taste extremely bad. This may be less universal in the sense that some people may be willing to drink because they love getting drunk more than they hate the taste. These also will definitely have the side effect of causing some other foods to taste better or worse, so you could have a justification for your dystopia having different popular foods. On the plus side, changing taste perception is less likely to accidentally injure or kill anyone than the alcohol intolerance approach, which could be lethal for someone who keeps drinking heavily after the change.

If you need to talk about specific mutations, here's a study showing several that reduce alcohol intake in mice by changing flavor perception: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4408608/

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Yes. Some mushrooms (Coprinopsis atramentaria) make coprine which have a disulfiram-like effect. So, they have a gene for producing that. The mushrooms are edible, but you don't want to have a beer with such a dinner.

These dystopic authorities could force gene therapy on people, introducing this gene. They would then produce some amount of coprine as part of normal metabolism, and be unable to drink alcohol.

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  • $\begingroup$ "These dystopic authorities could force gene therapy on people" – they do yeah, that's a main part $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Feb 8, 2023 at 19:52

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