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I would like for a civilization to be very good at bio-engineering, but I do not know how they would be able to modify DNA to suit their purposes, with greater things than breeding can bring. For example, giving natural armor to certain animals so they could take bullets.

Or more important to this species, they are interested in giving an animal, which spits acid, armor and turning it into a gun of sorts. The animal has not developed armor, and has no DNA coding for armor to really work off of. Any way to accomplish this?

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    $\begingroup$ Computers don't actually play a critical role in gene sequencing aside from being a wonderful place to store data and crunch numbers. The actual work is done chemically. $\endgroup$ – anon Oct 30 '17 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ You can do everything a computer does by hand, it just takes longer. $\endgroup$ – A. C. A. C. Oct 30 '17 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, if nobody did that already! While every Stack Exchange site has its own distinct differences, Worldbuilding is “more different” in some ways. In particular, you ought not Accept an answer before waiting at least 24 hours. A full explaination can be found on this meta post. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Oct 30 '17 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ @anon I couldn't disagree more. Yes, you can do the basic chemistry synthesis steps by hand and in theory do the same thing as high throughput methods, but in practice, it's totally different. Shotgun sequencing is how we sequenced the human genome, and simply wouldn't have been possible without intensive computation. There's a scale factor here where computation moves from "time saver" to "indispensable". Modern bio-engineering cannot be done without computers. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Oct 30 '17 at 20:23
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    $\begingroup$ @anon I never said the computer couldn't be organic, it just has to be able to compute. If this alien race possess brains that can do computation and pattern matching at the rate of gigaflops, good for them, but that's really just changing the definition of what we call a "computer". Biological systems we're familiar with don't even come close. What I'm saying is that doing modern bioengineering without having that computational power at your disposal, in one form or another, is not possible. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Oct 30 '17 at 21:01
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Short answer: You Can't

The Human Genome Project began "on a napkin" in 1984 and was declared complete in 2003. That's 19 years with access to overwhelming computational power. So, no, you can't manipulate DNA without computers.

Long answer: What's a computer?

Some years ago I coined a phrase, "technology dichotomy." The phrase describes the occasional author who wants, for example, time travel without first inventing the wheel. In your case it's the development of advanced bio-engineering without computers. The reality of technology is that you can't progress from one point to another without a vast pyramid of knowledge extending out below it.

DNA was discovered using x-rays. Radioactivity (from whence x-rays come) comes from the study of material physics. As does, among many other things, electronics. To justify no electricity-driven computers on your world you would basically need to justify no electricity ... except that electricity is a fundamental component of life and there's always some kite-and-key-weilding goombah trying to figure out how something works for no better reason than it's there. But that ignores the idea of "computers" generally.

Let's look at reality: as you understand more things, the foundation math gets more complex with it. As the complexity of math increases, the need to crunch it faster than a pencil and paper will allow increases. End result: a computer. But wait....

Most people don't realize the etymology of the word "computer" comes from the 1600s (yup, the sixteen-hundreds), meaning "one [a person] who calculates." In the beginning all computers were people. Then came mechanical computers like the Babbage Engine, then came electrically-driven mechanical computers, then (FINALLY!) came electronics.

It's impossible for an intelligent species to develop accounting without the need to expand to something faster than pencil and paper. Why do I say accounting? I can't prove it, but I'll eat my hat if the reason for the first computer (person) wasn't money. Some greasy politician wanted to total up his bribes, I mean take, I mean benefits. And computers were born. (Seriously, it was undoubtadly the Rothschildes... you know it was the Rothschilds.... If you think someone's out to get you, you're probably right....)

Therefore, the answer is "no, you can't do it without a computer, but what's stopping your species from developing computers?"

Bear in mind that it's unlikely that a society that is biologically based wouldn't understand electron transfer and solid-state physics. They may find a way to do it without silicon, but they'd still have computers.

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  • $\begingroup$ Okay, will keep the final question in mind. $\endgroup$ – OneSurvivor Oct 30 '17 at 21:54
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I would beg to make a difference between

  • changing a DNA of a test object
  • changing a DNA of a test object in a meaningful manner.

Just to insert stuff into a DNA is... well, it's hard, but it's Sci-Fi easy. Viruses do it all the time. However, you need to limit the self-replication, you need to attack each and every cell in an organism, you need to work around the immune system.

It might be easier to attack the progenitor cells of the male gamete and to wait what happens with the offspring.


That is the influence of the first kind is short of random, not goal-oriented at all. But totally doable without computers. In the long run it might produce interesting results. Just remember that we (as in, the humanity) managed to turn wolves into both chihuahua and mastiffs without any DNA editing at all. It took a long time, however.

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Grafting, not DNA modification. We can stick parts of plants together and they grow together and live as one. On your planet, they can do that with animals, either through some innate compatibility or via a substance they discovered.

Characteristics like thicker plates can be selectively bread using conventional techniques, and then these separate parts assembled into the desired livestock.

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Your people want to take a creature that spits acid, give it armor, and make it into a gun. You do not need to engineer DNA to do that.

You can give it armor.
elephant armor http://theminiaturespage.com/news/talk/msg.mv?id=708758

You can train it to spit on command.

spitting beluga http://themiddleflipper.blogspot.com/2016/02/whats-in-name-of-behavior-that-is.html

Whether or not you can tote it around like a musket depends on the size of the creature.

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Erg my point didn't seem to inspire anyone, anyways

Intentional and direct Genetic Engineering requires vast amounts of knowledge and computational resources. So the one way I see to achieve this without computers is for your species to have such evolved brains that they can intentionally GE using their minds as a substitute for computers.

Selective breeding and grafting are great and all but they are more akin to genetic manipulation than true genetic engineering.

Without the ability to fully understand the genome and biology and be able to craft target mutators its likely they wont achieve the dramatic effects you are looking for (provided something similar doesn't already exist in your world).

Note: the actual process of editing genes is achieved without computers through chemicals, retro viruses, and the imprecise gun method. You need to the computational power to craft and guide these tools.

At this rate your species could then even GE creatures as function of their own biology (though farfetched) makes for fun possibilities.

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Check out my answer to this question as my conclusion was similar (entirely different question though).

Octopuses are amazing creatures who have the ability to edit their genetic code by choosing to alter and/or ignore instructions for their DNA. There may be a correlation between octopuses' relatively high intelligence and their ability to do this innate genetic tinkering.

If your civilization rose from roots similar to those of octopuses, genetic tinkering would be in their blood, perhaps literally. As their civilization advanced, their advancement would through improved their ability to genetically modify their surroundings, much as we have improved our methods of farming, building, fighting, etc.

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Remember that DNA hybridization was first developed in the early 1970s. It was not done using computers, just a lot of lab work to refine enzymes, culture cells, hybridize using viruses and other vectors and so on. Computers were not that common in labs until the PCs in the 1980s. You can certainly do biotechnology without computers, it is just hard work.

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    $\begingroup$ That's not accurate... Hybridization itself may not have required a computer, but all the technologies, reagents and information they needed to be able to perform hybridization would not be possible to achieve without computational tools $\endgroup$ – Thai Oct 31 '17 at 13:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Thai: Any example? You can do x-ray crystallography to find structures without computers. Sure there was calculation around, but slide rules used to dominate. Computers back then were remote mainframes for particular jobs, not lab work. $\endgroup$ – Anders Sandberg Nov 5 '17 at 6:59
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Simple reproduction would change the DNA of the resultant being. Maternal DNA and Paternal DNA would combine randomly and generate a new DNA sequence in the child. After generations go by more new sequences are formed. Genetics is a crap shoot. It does not require a computer and is far more fun.

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