Slelling, Genetic Avatars, and Mail Order Chewing Gum Impregnated with your DNA

In David Zindell’s space opera Neverness, the term “slel” is introduced to describe the misappropriation of someone else’s DNA. In a review of Zindell’s book, Orson Scott Card gives us the following definition:

Slel: To take DNA from someone against his will, to create avatars of him, or perhaps children.

Last week Hsien documented the recent efforts of UK police to make slelling a standard practice.

I’ve got two riffs on slelling for you: (1) genetic avatars and (2) DNA bubble gum.

First, genetic avatars. An individual’s genome undoubtedly contains information about facial structure and other identifying information like eye and hair color, gender, etc. The future of forensic analysis may include the ability to generate a rough picture or digital avatar of an individual just by sequencing and analyzing a DNA sample. Who knows how accurate genetic avatars could become. It seems entirely reasonable to me that genetic avatars might rival the effort of sketch artists, and will most certainly augment those efforts one day.

genetic_avatar
(image: www.doenetwork.org)

The second riff is mail order chewing gum impregnated with the DNA of someone that has never actually chewed that piece of gum. There are risks associated with publishing your genome sequence on the web (or leaving a sample of DNA behind the licked stamp on a postcard with your name on it). One of those risks is the potential to be framed for a crime. This could happen if someone were to have DNA synthesized so that it is identical to your genome sequence. A criminal could impregnate chewing gum with this DNA, leave it at a crime scene, and potentially implicate you in the crime. I imagine it is only a matter of time before someone uses this defense in court. (I should also note the amazing “Innocence Project” uses DNA analysis as a tool to exonerate the falsely imprisoned. 205 exonerated thus far and counting.)

This leads to another riff. As the synthesis of DNA becomes easier for nearly anyone to get access to or perform on their own (ever query ebay for PCR?), and as more people get personal genome sequences, I wonder if forensic DNA databases, like the one in the UK I mentioned earlier, will lose their power as a crime fighting tool? If framing someone for a crime becomes as straightforward as, for example, planting mail order chewing gum impregnated with DNA (or a coffee cup with a DNA impregnated lipstick mark), then it seems quite likely that DNA evidence, without other corroborating evidence, may cease to be incontrovertible in court and achieve the status of “old-fashioned” rather quickly. Has DNA evidence already had its 15 minutes of fame? Oddly, having your genome sequence online for all to see might in some way actually protect you from a conviction by DNA. The irony seems too bizarre to be possible.

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One Response to “Slelling, Genetic Avatars, and Mail Order Chewing Gum Impregnated with your DNA”

  1. Trackbacks on June 24th, 2017 5:29 pm

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