That 'Tony Stark' Craigslist Ad Was Made by a NASA Scientist Who Thinks Criminals Will Frame People with Genetic Engineering

Tuesday, 14 April 2015 - 11:09AM
Science of Sci-Fi
Genetic Engineering
Tuesday, 14 April 2015 - 11:09AM
Last week, someone posted a Craigslist ad from a Bay-area "recovering alcoholic billionaire" who was "being framed" and needed "genetic engineering help." Many believed this was a viral marketing campaign for Avengers and/or Fantastic Four, or more likely a hilarious joke ad written by someone pretending to be Tony Stark. But, as it turns out, the ad was mostly in earnest, and written by a NASA scientist.

Although NASA biologist Josiah Zayner isn't being framed for a crime and doesn't actually need genetic engineering help, he wrote the viral ad as a form of performance art, or "speculative science." He believes that, in light of all the recent advancements made in the field of genetic engineering, someday soon the notion of being framed for a crime using synthetic DNA will be a very real threat.

First, he thought about the problem in reverse: in the event that a person actually did commit a crime, but wanted to use genetic engineering to get away with it. "I was thinking, if somebody was accused of the crime, how could they fake out a DNA test?" Zayner said.

He explained that someone could edit his or her own DNA in order to ensure that the forensic evidence didn't match the genetic material provided to the police. "What you would do is edit the 10-20 loci police usually look at to determine DNA match and change them to something else. Because it's your cheek cells, and your cheek cells die and replicate, the genetic changes wouldn't be permanent, they'd just be changed for that period of time." 

And if someone could potentially edit his or her own DNA so it didn't match the evidence, he or she could also theoretically modify his or her DNA so it matched someone else's.

"Imagine if a person goes to argue a case and somebody says, 'This person had DNA at the scene of the crime,'" he said. "One could say, 'we don't know the genetics weren't engineered.' It's totally going to be a weird future."

The Craigslist ad was only meant to raise awareness of this "weird future," but Zayner had several bonafide applicants for the gig. "I started continuing it, and sending people weird questions to see how they respond further to the performance," he said. "It's almost like people want this to be real, they are almost hoping there might be a billionaire on the other side of this email."

He also received a few humorous answers, including "Very funny Elon," referring to Elon Musk, who is often called a "real-life Tony Stark." But the most impressive answer came from someone claiming to be a Cornell professor:

"I have over 13 years of experience in genetic engineering, including CRISPR (I know, you might say, crispr was only discovered a year ago, but we can chat about it privately), over 30 years of experience fighting Ukrainian mafia, and I was building robots since the age of 6."

But for all the jokes and the Avengers/Fantastic Four viral marketing speculation, Zayner believes that we should take the implications of these technological advancements very seriously. "It's sad, the science kind of got lost a little bit in it. No, this isn't a joke, it's not a plot for the next Iron Man movie, it's an actual possibility."

Via Motherboard.
Weird Science
Science of Sci-Fi
Genetic Engineering

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