The three lives of DNA: or why we shouldn't trust a technology until we are able to hack it

Every new technology has three lives before coming of age. When Galileo finished his new telescope and pointed it towards the sky, he had to be extremely disappointed. For centuries, scholars had explained that the heavenly world was perfect, pure, insurmountable; and yet it turned out that the Sun had spots and the Moon had holes. That Saturn had two handles as if it were a vessel and that, to top it off, Jupiter was surrounded by four satellites.

That was incredible! All the architecture of the universe with its complex, precise and extremely useful Ptolemaic mechanisms was in crisis due to a simple organ tube with two lenses on each side. Galileo walked all over Italy teaching the artifact and marveling what was surely thousands of people.

When our best test deceives us

Nestor Alonso

With him came fame and recognition. However, Galileo had a problem. And that problem was called lacking an optical theory that could help make sure that what they saw was indeed planets and not aberrations, errors, or visual illusions. When you focus on the ground, mistakes can be corrected by going to the place in question and checking if what we have seen is there.

With the sky, as is understandable, the thing is more complex. This was precisely where Galileo's observations made water. Someone who, on the other hand, was not very trustworthy, as the Jesuit astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli was in charge of demonstrating.

It is not theoretical, it is a risk as real as life itself. In 1963 Peter van Kamp, one of the most respected astronomers of the day, announced that after examining hundreds of photographs and making careful calculations, Barnard's star had two huge gas giants orbiting it. For a decade, the international scientific community celebrated having found the first planets outside the solar system.

Until in 1973 it was discovered that these planets did not exist. But Van Kamp, who had dedicated a climb to that strange wobble of Barnard's star, never recognized his mistake. He died alone and without prestige in the Amsterdam of 1995. If the first life is enthusiasm and the second is disappointment, the third life of all technology has to do with understanding its limits and its weaknesses: the certain risks of manipulation and mediatization.

The three lives of DNA before coming of age

Enthusiasm and mistrust have accompanied genetic testing from almost the first moment: the judicial fight to allow this type of tests to be used as elements to convict and exonerate defendants has been part of the legal history of the world since Colin Pitchfork was convicted in 1986 for a DNA test.

And yet, with the "democratization" of DNA testing, this technology has undergone a similar process. Antonio Villarreal told us about the problems of probabilistic genotyping tests and how they should not be used as the only test in the same way that the Galileo telescope could not be used as the only test.

Only when we understand its limits and its manipulability, can we begin to trust a technology

As Cefe Varón said, "before the tests to obtain the genome warned that its reliability was 95%. Dan Graur joked that it was better to give you the genome of a chimpanzee, which we know is 98% ours." Rodrigo Villalobos, our archaeologist on duty, often says that "paleogenetics has a few years left" even to reach full maturity. "Radiocarbon, for example, took decades to be more or less reliable." But to those limitations, we could add certain new features.

Because, however, there is one more turn. In the case of astronomy, that third round came in the middle of the Cold War. To what extent could the enemy manipulate our detection systems? To what extent could we do it with yours? How could we hide our new developments? As the historians of the matter explain, the rise and death of the UFO phenomenon has a lot to do with that process that had to take place in society about the limits of our astronomical systems and the risks of manipulation.

In the case of DNA, that third life begins now. A decade ago, it was demonstrated that 'DNA tests' could be manufactured without major technical problem, and in 2017, a group of researchers from the University of Washington demonstrated that it was possible to encode a computer virus into a DNA sample in such a way that when sequenced it will take control of the computer in question and destroy the database.

Can we really trust DNA in the future? It is not clear, but it is not necessary. We can never trust anything for sure. And that's an important lesson: Each test is a piece of evidence that must fit into more complex and robust structures. In fact, it is only when we are aware of that that we can use DNA well.

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