IN THE movie, Minority Report, the PreCrime police prevent crimes and arrest people before they commit the crime. It sounds incredible and almost impossible that it would ever happen in the real world. But rethink. It is very much possible and may be put into routine use in the very near future albeit the technology to prevent crime will be entirely different from that of the movie, which relied upon the knowledge of psychics. In real world, we will be using our very own DNA as the basis for all this process.
Human genome consists of some 3 billion base pairs of DNA (DeoxyriboNucleic Acid) interwoven with proteins into 46 distinct structures called chromosomes. On these chromosomes, there are stretches of DNA which are called genes. These genes are responsible for the synthesis of proteins and are responsible for our physical appearance as well as our physiology. A single change in any of the gene can have immense physiological or physical effects.
The human genome sequence has immense potential in many areas. It is reported in the scientific literature that there are some genes which are responsible for aggression in living beings. Moreover, some mutations into some of the normal genes make an individual more aggressive and s/he has and increased tendency to commit a crime.
The entire human genome has been sequenced almost a decade ago but it represents a “normal” human. With the lowering cost of the technology to sequence, we can undertake the project to sequence the genomes of, for example, serial killers or other hardened criminals. Once we have sufficient number of genomes sequenced, we will have some meaningful data to play with.
Using the latest bioinformatics tools, we can compare and contrast different regions of human genome sequences. We can point out any significant differences from the normal genome and can look for areas of similarity. If we find any pattern or particular consensus regions in these individuals it will add an enormous weight to the theory that it is the inherent DNA that makes us do what we do and we have not much free will in doing things.
Like fingerprinting and, lately, DNA testing, is incorporated into our criminal justice system, in the future we will have to add genome sequence testing of accused. Sets of genes/mutations can be standardized for any particular crime. If certain individuals charged with particular crimes are found to carry those mutations, then they will be transferred to medical facility and not to prisons.
Prenatal and post natal tests can be performed for any gene/mutation linked to a particular criminal tendency. If tested positive, gene therapy can be applied to correct these mutations. Otherwise, these newborns can be subjected to medical help. They can be least exposed to the environment where they can have a chance to commit a crime. In this way, we can prevent crimes before they are actually committed.
So far so well, but like with every technology, this also has a dark side. Consider that once we have knowledge of these so-called crime genes/mutations, they can be used in so many ways. With a feasible gene delivery system, these genes can be purposefully inserted into the genomes of individuals or even into a whole nation, rendering them criminals. Sounds far-fetched and sci-fi, but it is very much possible. With the decreasing costs of sequencing and the fast advancing field of gene therapy, why can’t it be done?
The ethical and socio-legal implications of using this technology are immense. The foremost objection is the threat to privacy. Another important and valid objection is the misuse of this technology. Eugenics practice to threaten the lives of individuals with certain genetic makeup is another issue needed to be considered. But for the benefit of the affected individuals; the accused, the victim and the society in general, it must be utilized to its fullest. After all, the safety of the society is more important than the privacy of a few individuals.
The writer is a PhD Research Scholar at Forensic DNA Lab, Centre of Excellence in Molecular Biology Lahore