This is for a short story idea.

Is it possible to modify the DNA of a child to make their metabolism more susceptible (physical response, addiction, etc) to a certain type of chemical i.e. a chemical present in a fictional food. The idea being that their DNA is modified when in the womb (or before) and when they grow older (think teenager) they become addicted to said product.

This could be before conception, during pregnancy or after birth. What ways, in the future, could we go about doing this? Maybe chemical mutagens (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutagen) or site-directed mutagenesis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Site-directed_mutagenesis)? Gene therapy?

Or is there a way to alter the regulation of the physiological processes in the human body to make someone become easily addicted to a particular product?

I'm looking to have this aspect of the story as scientifically accurate as possible so I can examine the ethical questions around it within the story.

  • $\begingroup$ Also, as an alternative I've been suggested Epigenetics. Suggestions? $\endgroup$
    – Evanbbb
    Jun 12, 2013 at 15:58

2 Answers 2


As fiction this is a reasonable premise, but at this point you are talking about what is called Gene Therapy - intentionally modifying or adding the sequence of a functional gene to change a deficiency of the subject.

Gene therapy is a persistent goal of research, but it has only recent been executed - changing the DNA of cells in a living human being. There have been some scary and unpredictable side effects of gene therapy. In the mid 1990s an 18 year old boy developed multiple organ failure as the result of gene therapy to cure a genetic digestive deficiency.

This article describes a retrovirally mediated gene therapy to treat X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) in 2003. SCID patients (also known as bubble boy disease) have a single defective gene (yc) on their one X chromosome and the varicella–zoster virus infection inserted a functional copy into the patients. Three of the four subjects responded well and at 3 years seemed to be effectively cured, but a fourth developed acute lymphocytic leukemia.

Most of the gene therapy projects continue to happen in mice, but there has been some encouraging progress recently, the devil is in the details as to how gene therapy would work.

Here is a decent feed of gene therapy goings on.

If and when gene therapy is safe and precise enough to use, then it could change a lot of characteristics in human beings - just about anything that genes do could be modified or modulated.


To extend with a theoretical way such a method might be possible (though I really hope this will never work or be done!) This is essentially a gene-therapy approach.

  1. Are you talking about psychological addiction (needing it to avoid running crazy), or physical dependence (needing it to avoid health complications)? The latter could be achieved in a cruel way for example by engineering vital genes of enzymes involved in cell metabolism in such a way that they require your substance of choice as a cofactor to work. The former would first require the identification of some genetic basis of psychological addiction. Though for science fiction you could stay vague (because scientific knowledge is vague) and say that the metabolism of their substance is genetically modified in such a way that it overstimulates reward pathways. This would not make them addicted, but rather susceptible to addiction after little exposure.

  2. One of these methods will require altering an existing gene, the other may require inserting a new gene for a new enzyme, or altering the gene of an existing enzyme. The modification will have to be made at the very earliest stages of embryonic development to ensure that all cells carry the modification later. If in-vitro fertilisation is performed, this can be done before inserting the embryo into the mother's womb. In a normal pergnancy, there is a problem as the developing embryo does not become accessible from the mother's blood vessels until several days into development, when there is already a considerable number of cells. You could claim that a virus was modified in a way that it would be able to cross endometrial tissue and enter the embryo. If you want to go more "fancy" high-tech (even though successfully engineering such a virus would already be very high-tech), they could use a nanoparticle, for example made of silicon, gold, or pure carbon.

  3. Whichever method you choose, they could use said delivery method to carry a short stretch of DNA with the desired gene and machinery to recombine it into the embryonic cells' genomes, either exchanging the old gene for a new, engineered one, or simple inserting their own gene.

  4. As for how they manufactured their own new gene or version of a gene, this could be achieved by site-directed mutagenesis


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