Keeping it in their genes

Sex and violence, for many, are inextricably linked. J G Ballard based his literary career on melding the two. Recent laboratory evidence shows that there is a patch of cells in the hypothalamus of the brains of mice that responds to and triggers sexual and aggressive behaviour. The research included some startling experiments.

Viruses infect cells. We can also alter viral genetic make-up with ease. Mice were infected with a virus that delivered a gene encoding a protein that allowed researchers to switch the sex/violence neurons off at will. They suppressed aggressive behaviour in male mice (the authors, however, said little about what the virus did elsewhere in the body). Commenting in Nature magazine, Clifford Saper of Harvard Medical School suggested that the research might open the way to genetic therapy being used to control sex offenders and violent criminals.

Technological capability and the reduction of "life" to its chemical basis is proceeding at a breathtaking rate. But as scenarios such as this emerge, the need for ethical debate grows. The idea of genetically induced psychiatric castration will be abhorrent to some, utopian to others. In Europe, where even genetically modified crops are restricted, it seems unlikely that our streets will be paced by GM sex offenders any time soon. l

Michael Barrett is professor of biochemical parasitology at the University of Glasgow

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?