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I Asked a Biological Weapons Expert How Far-Fetched Metal Gear Solid’s Genome Soldiers Really Are

Stanford's Dr. Steven Block reveals that Hideo Kojima's PlayStation original was remarkably prescient in its presentation of future troops.

Joe Donnelly

Genome Soldiers from 'Metal Gear Solid'

"We're conducting exercises with a new type of experimental weapon," says DARPA chief Donald Anderson. It's the opening hours of the original Metal Gear Solid, and Snake has infiltrated the Shadow Moses compound and has just broken into Anderson's holding cell via the air ventilation system above. "A weapon that will change the world," he adds.

Minutes later, Snake checks Anderson's pulse as he lies splayed across the concrete floor. He's dead. A heart attack, seemingly.

Hours later, Snake finds Anderson's body moved to a different location, rapidly decomposed and swarming with flies. Something doesn't fit but Snake can't quite place what it is.

In hindsight, the opening hours of Metal Gear Solid are some of the best the entire series has to offer. Like many others at the time, the PlayStation essential was my first introduction to director Hideo Kojima's tactical espionage master class, and its intricate plot and multidimensional characters were like nothing I'd experienced before.

What Snake struggles to ascertain as he observes Anderson's rotting corpse is how quickly the ex-DARPA chief has begun to spoil. If he's not long dead then how is it possible for his remains be in such a state? Well, it turns out that he's actually been wasting away for days after being fatally tortured by Revolver Ocelot, and the man Snake seemingly watched snuff it by virtue of a dodgy ticker was in actual fact Decoy Octopus—FOXHOUND's master of disguise and shape-shifting.

Oh, and it wasn't a natural heart attack either, it was cardiac arrest as a result of FOXDIE, a designer virus integral to The Pentagon's biological weapons program. FOXDIE hijacks the target's white blood cells, identifies pre-programmed strands of DNA, and then produces cytokines—forcing a heart attack upon the subject.

Discovering Anderson's actual corpse is almost trivial, but this early revelation cemented Kojima's genius—a brilliance that would effortlessly shine throughout the rest of the game and the series.

Anderson, or not Anderson, speaks to Snake in Shadow Moses (screencap via YouTube)

Anderson, or rather, Octopus's mention of a "weapon that will change the world" was in reference to nuclear juggernaut Metal Gear Rex, yet FOXDIE posed an equally terrifying prospect in Kojima's fictitious/reality crossover—it very much felt like a weapon that could change the world. Furthermore, Metal Gear Solid's Genome Soldiers—a genetically altered troop whose makeup has been manipulated to pose a formidable force on the battlefield—provide a glimpse into the Brave New World, Huxley-like mind of Kojima.

Needless to say Kojima is a smart man and an excellent storyteller for the most part, but that's not to say Metal Gear Solid (and the wider series) is without plot holes. Given how much his games offer players, though, most of his discrepancies are easier overlooked. To this end, it seemed obvious Kojima would've based his game's apocryphal elements around fact, yet I was curious to find out just how realistic his lore is, some 17 years after introducing the Solid series. Since 1998, the USA has engaged in two long-standing wars, and simply googling genetic engineering produces multiple news stories. Just how far-fetched are Genome Soldiers and FOXDIE?

When I figuratively sat down with Dr Steven Block—a biological weapons expert from Stanford University—via Skype, we spoke for 70 minutes. In this time I asked just four questions, two of which were directly about FOXDIE and Genome Soldiers. I ended up with pages and pages of transcription that I've whittled down to what you can read below.

As you might imagine, it gets a bit technical from hereon in (assuming you were keeping up with the games-specific science), but nonetheless serves to highlight how prescient the first Metal Gear Solid really was on its release back in 1998.

VICE: FOXDIE, from the Metal Gear Solid series, is a virus that enters macrophages in the target's bloodstream, then it uses enzymes to attach to a DNA sequence that it has been "programmed" to recognize. Once the virus is attached to the DNA, the macrophage starts to produce cytokines, and ultimately causes the target to have a heart attack via programmed cell death, apoptosis. Is there any truth, in terms of what exists today, or possibility in this idea?
Dr Steven Block: Let me talk about the scientific basis for each of those pieces. Each of those pieces that you just described has a basis in fact. Is there a virus, for example, that could target white blood cells and get into them? Yes, a good example is AIDS. There are a number of leukemia viruses that, in fact, have specific receptors that are found on your white blood cells and use this as a point of entry. Is that part of it true? Yes, viruses exist that could do that.

Next question: Once the DNA or the RNA or whatever the device is using, once its genome is injected into the host's cell, can it locate a specific sequence on the surface on the DNA of that cell? The answer to that is also yes. You might've heard about this new technology called Crispr? It's not the only example, but it's the most practical as it's been brought further along in terms of technology.

It's an example of technology that was developed in evolution by bacteria and viruses to try to find specific sequences in the house. And so, Crispr can be programmed with very short segments of DNA that you provide and can be programmed to target a complementary sequence in the genome.

In other words, if I wanted to go to point A on the human genome, I can make it go to point A and—if in a different virus—I want to make it go to point B, I can make it go to point B. We know that sets of enzymes exist which once created and given the right instructions, so to speak, in the form of a short DNA molecule, can actually target a specific sequence in the genome. So, does that part of the technology exist? Absolutely, yes.

Once it's found that place, could it, for example, either active its own program to make cytokines or activate the intrinsic program in the white blood cells? (White blood cells can also make cytokines; different types of white blood cells are specialized in making different kinds of cytokines.)

The last part of the scenario that you gave is that the gene entered the white blood cells—it targeted the DNA—and there's technology for that. Boosted cytokine production—the technology exists for that, and caused lethality in the target. Is all of that possible? It's absolutely possible. But putting all of those pieces together and making them work as a practical weapon? It's a tall order.

All the little pieces need to work together like clockwork, the thing can't backfire or be self-terminating, the host can't reject it. That part is actually non-trivial. Does the technology exist for producing a genetically engineered weapon which would do all these pieces? Yes.

Has anybody done this? Absolutely not. Would it be trivial to do? It's not as easy as you think.

A bunch of dead Genome Soldiers, from 'Metal Gear Solid' (via the Metal Gear Wiki)

One of the symptoms protagonist Snake suffers from once infected with FOXDIE is accelerated aging: He becomes stiff, his hair goes gray and then white, his skin becomes wrinkled and so forth. Is there any possibility that such viruses could bring on these symptoms?
That's the most far-fetched of all the things you've mentioned up to now. There are diseases which produce Early Aging Progeria—some of those people don't live to see their teenage years, and their hair falls out or goes gray, they look aged even though they're young. We know that, at least on a mild level, that stress can cause premature aging—when people say, "It made your hair go gray," that's not totally a fable.

The fact of the matter is that being exposed to large amounts of stress can make your hair go prematurely gray for reasons we don't fully understand. Whether that's really aging or not, it's a stress response. Another response to stress is that you could have a stroke or a heart attack, but does your skin suddenly start to wrinkle, your hair suddenly go gray and fall out, develop osteoarthritis, and all of these other symptoms, that take many years to develop—can this happen over the course of a few months? I'm not aware of any examples of that.

Everything that you've mentioned so far is precedent in the literature, but this one is unprecedented to my knowledge.

New on Motherboard: The Technological Alt-History of Metal Gear Solid

In the same game, a troop of soldiers are named the Genome Soldiers and are organized to cope with terrorist incidents specifically involving weapons of mass destruction. Its members are strengthened through gene therapy, having either been injected with the "genes" of a deceased veteran leader, or otherwise having their nucleotide alignment rearranged to resemble this leader's DNA. In essence, this is obviously genetic modification but from a weapons or defense standpoint. Could genetic modification to make soldiers better at fighting, with augmented senses, reflexes, and combat skills? Could this happen in real life?
Is it possible to genetically engineer someone so that they're immune to various types of viral attack? The answer is in some cases, yes.

A virus usually tries to target something that's important, rather than something that's not important. That said, is it possible to genetically engineer people to either be immune to diseases or to have various strengths against various diseases? Again, this is one of these things that's easier to do on paper.

The fact of the matter, though, as you know, is that if gene therapy were really practical today, everyone would be doing it. It's the trillion-dollar question for the biomedical industry at the moment. For many years people have been trying to figure out how to change the genome of people on a permanent basis, which would render them unsusceptible to diseases. If we could target the genes of viruses—diabetes, ALS—and fix them, or get rid of the ones that cause bad problems, we could make everybody immune to a host of diseases that have plagued mankind since the dawn of time.

They've then tried to put in the molecules that would cause those genes to get spliced in appropriate ways. They get this to work in cell culture, sometimes in animals, but then they try it out on humans and sometimes it works, but others it doesn't—sometimes so much so that the person dies. Practical gene therapy doesn't really exist yet because none of it has actually worked. We always seem to be just around the corner from making gene therapy practical, but I should also point out that we've been just around the corner from learning how to stop cancer for the last 50 years, and yet we haven't been able to stop cancer.

Back to your Genome Soldiers – it may become possible. When and if gene therapy becomes possible, then the sky's the limit. It may become possible to produce people who are immune to a host of diseases. It may become possible to cure people of genetic diseases that they have.

Could I imagine Genome Soldiers? Yes, I think anyone who's followed the literature could probably imagine this, but I don't think we're there yet. I think this is, for the moment, a little bit of science fiction. Gene therapy is certainly going to be with us in the next 100 years, but the real question is if it's going to with us the next ten to 20 years. I wouldn't want to make a bet on it either way.

It's worth pointing out that molecular biology, like any tool, can be used for good or evil. The reason why people are investing millions of dollars in this is because the good it could do could be fabulous. Of course, once we have the tools to rid people of disease, the same tool could make people come down with disease, so it's a double-edged sword.

I wanted to point out that this is rarely brought up, because the technology for doing good things, the technology for resisting biological weapons, is being developed at the same time and is often the same technology as producing black biology or biological weapons. So what I think you can anticipate in the future is kind of a war of escalation. Sure, somebody can produce a biological weapon, but the same technology that produces that weapon might be used to fight that weapon.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is out now and is, by all accounts, pretty bloody amazing. We've some stuff up on it, which you can read here.

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