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Serious Science: genetically engineered super soldiers

Tuesday, 17 June 2008 — by

Our fascination with Iron Man, Halo’s fabled Master Chief and The Terminator hints at both a fear and a fantasy surrounding mankind’s future. What future lies ahead of us is still uncertain, but the journey might be less fantastical than anyone had imagined…

Master Chief — genetic engineering

Master Chief from the video game HaloIn the Halo universe, the Master Chief is a remnant of the SPARTAN II Project of genetically engineered super soldiers, who fights tirelessly to save all of mankind. But how close are we to that level of gene manipulation?

Back in 1990, the Human Genome Project began. The aim of the project is much easier said than done; it’s purpose is to map and then analyze all of the genes that make up the human DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid). We’ve come a long way, with similar projects are underway with several other animal species.

Within the next 50 years, I’m confident we’ll certainly know enough about the human genome and that of other animals to draw up the blue print of a genetically engineered super soldier. But what attributes might we expect to see our super human take on?

Superman wears kaki — faster, stronger and smarter super soldiers

The most immediately beneficial characteristics of our would-be super soldier would be a greater capacity for learning and adaptation, faster reflexes and a substantial increase in muscular-skeletal strength and agility.

Having soldiers with the mental faculties to apply critical thinking, making informed decisions in the field would improve their performance immeasurably.

Additionally, being able to run as fast as moving vehicles for sustained periods of time, or running for great distances have very obvious benefits. Faster reflexes come into their own in close quarter combat, where our super soldier might have to fight more than one opponent simultaneously.

Being very strong seems to be an obvious choice, but doesn’t have any immediately obvious application. After all, modern warfare doesn’t involve wielding a huge axe, shield or sword! But it does involve lugging around large ordnance, supplies and ammunition, maybe even righting an upturned vehicle, or surviving the collapse of a surrounding building.

Those improvements alone would almost entirely negate the need for body armor, since our super soldier would have the mental wherewithal and physical prowess to avoid and evade such situations.

But just in case our super soldier was caught by a well-aimed bullet or a stray piece of shrapnel, might it be better to have them to have their armour on the inside? Thanks to Paramylodon Harlani, otherwise known as the now extinct Giant Ground Sloth, we could make use of a very unusual mammalian evolutionary adaptation called dermal ossicles:

“A strange anatomical feature of some ground sloths was the presence of dermal ossicles, or small nodules of bone, which formed in the skin, under the fur. Found frequently in reptiles, these ossicles are extremely rare in mammals. In modern mammals, similar structures are only seen in the armadillos.”

By all accounts, these ossicles are exceptionally tough and would prove an excellent bullet stop, and of other similar ballistic type projectiles.

Assuming that our super soldier has been shot, they’re going to need to heal very quickly. Worse case scenario being they’ve lost a substantial amount of tissue, or even an appendage:

“Some animals possess the natural ability to re-grow lost limbs, such as salamanders and many crustaceans. Unfortunately, we don’t. However, we do seem to have the DNA kicking around inside us that would impart such abilities.”

Having such abilities would vastly reduce the need for various forms of field medical treatment, increasing soldier efficiency dramatically. The career of our super soldier would not necessarily end with the loss of a leg, an arm or an eye.

Extra super-sensory perception

Adding to this list of favoured physiological attributes would be enhanced adaptive vision, as well as a general increase in sensory perception.

All soldiers rely heavily on their senses, specifically their eyes. Being able to see in low light conditions would be a huge bonus. Being able to see in infra red, doubly so. Fortunately for our scientists, there’s a natural precedent, namely the Pit Organ, found in various snake families.

The organ is a small pit near the nose, which allows them to see thermal radiation, much like the hunter alien in the movie The Predator. The difference here is, this is real.

Animals such as Pigeons and Cetaceans such as Whales are known to have the ability to sense and then navigate by magnetism. While such a sense might not have obvious applications, our super soldier might find themselves in a variety of environments and find it impractical to read a map.

But if they had some foreknowledge of the surrounding geography, they could match their mental image to their magnetic senses.

Additionally, hidden amidst the fogs of war, concealed perhaps beneath soil, sand or stone, machines may lurk, ready to spring their fatal traps. For the average super soldier, even hidden weapons and explosive devices might not pose too much of an threat, since their enhanced senses would allow them to see or even hear the whirring gears within these machines of war.

Add to that their sense of magnetism and they may be able to visualize these deadly devices as entangled threads and thin sinews of magnetism, looping around themselves, buried beneath them.

However, the downside is their magnetic senses might make them prone to EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse) weapons, which would most likely overwhelm them.

Future wars

Biological weapons need not just be nebulous, unseen clouds of poisonous gas or lethal bacterium or viri. In the future, our biological weapons may be more complex, composed of flesh & bone, forged over millions of years by Mother Nature and then refined and fashioned into living gods of war by the ingenious, terrifying minds of man.

But what of those other weapons made of metal, powered not by the gene, but by exotic fuels, servos, tireless gears, motors and sophisticated microprocessors? Maybe there’s a future for man and machine as one

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Wayne Smallman → Tuesday, 17 June 2008 @ 13:26 BDT

Away from the direct manipulation of the mighty gene, super soldiers of a kind could be the byproduct of eugenics; which is essentially the selective breeding of successively stronger and smarter blood lines.

However, such things require generations of perseverance and a suitably favourable political climate. So the genetic engineering of super soldiers is much more preferable, since the successes of those efforts could be enjoyed within our own lifetime.

However, genetic research isn’t without its own controversy. Consider the furore surrounding so-called “designer babies”:
“Advanced reproductive technologies allow parents and doctors to screen embryos for genetic disorders and select healthy embryos.

The fear is that in the future we may be able to use genetic technologies to modify embryos and choose desirable or cosmetic characteristics.”
The danger with genetics is twofold: 1. the sheer scope and potential, 2. the vagaries of political regimes or of powerful, wealthy and deeply motivated groups of people with different ethical .

In this scenario, I’m thinking of ethnic bioweapons; weapons designed to “harm only or primarily persons of specific ethnicities or genotypes.”

Since the start of the Human Genome Project back in 1990, we’ve come a long way. While the benefits of such research are philanthropical (better understanding of diseases, hereditary defects et cetera), it’s what we can do with this data in the coming decades that’s of most concern.

Having spoken to science writer and chemist David Bradley, the subject of genetics with a military application is something of a political anathema. There’s little doubt that basic laboratory work is within our grasp now, what we lack is the political tolerance, which might not be bad thing, given the current climate of world conflict…

MJBDiver → Wednesday, 18 June 2008 @ 14:15 BDT

This definitely opens up a whole new world of possibilities. I think this type of technology is developing so fast that someday the line between science fiction and fiction will be blurred.

Wayne Smallman → Wednesday, 18 June 2008 @ 14:20 BDT

Just wait until you see how close we are to Star Trek technology

Cameron → Saturday, 26 September 2009 @ 0:04 BDT

I do beleve that there might be a super soldier one day but you would have to find all these animals with the same blood DNA etc. so I LOVE to see it, it would probably prevent all future wars from country to country if you ever played Halo 3 before you would know about the Covenant story of the aliens.

Sorry Comments are close. Quite possibly for a good reason. Share your thoughts on some of my other posts or contact me directly.

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