The history on this topic actually starts thousands of years ago with selective breeding in animals. Through breeding selectively, we strengthened useful traits in plants and animals. We became good at this, but never fully were able to understand how it really worked. Then we found the code of life, Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA). It’s a complex molecule that sends instructions for the growth, maturation, function, and reproduction of every existing thing. Data is encoded in the structure of the molecule. Four nucleotides are put together, paired, and make up a code that carries instructions. Change the instructions and you shift the effect it holds on the organism carrying it.
Right when DNA was discovered, even before it was fully understood, people attempted to fiddle with it. In the 1960’s, scientist pounded plants with radiation to induce random mutations in the genetic code. The thought was to find a useful plant variation by pure luck. And sometimes on a rare occasion, it worked. In the 70’s, people inserted DNA into bacteria, plants, and animals to observe, study and alter them for research, medicine, agriculture, and sport. The first genetically modified animal was born in 1974, making mice a standard instrument for research, saving millions of lives. In the 1980’s the first patent was granted for a microbe engineered to absorb oil. Today we produce many chemicals by means of organized life, like life-saving clotting factors, growth hormones, and insulin. All things we had to harvest from the organs of animals before that. The first food modified in the lab went on sale in 1994 called the Flavr Savr tomato. It is a tomato that is given a much longer shelf life where an additional factor that inhibits the build-up of a rotting enzyme. But GM food and the controversy surrounding them deserve an essay of their own. In the 1990’s, there was a short look into human engineering. This was originally to treat maternal infertility, babies were made that carried genetic information from 3 humans. Making them the first humans ever to have 3 genetic parents.
Today there are super muscled pigs, fast-growing salmon, featherless chicken, and see-through frogs. On the fun side, we made things glow in the dark. Fluorescent zebrafish is available for as little as ten bucks. All of this is already very impressive, only until recently gene editing was extremely expensive, complicated, and took a long time to execute. This has immediately changed with a radical new technology now going into the limelight called, CRISPR. Overnight, the costs of engineering have shrunk by 99 %. Instead of a year, it needs only a few weeks to conduct experiments, and basically, everybody with a lab can manage it. It’s difficult to bring across how big a technical revolution CRISPR is. It literally allows and presents the potential to change humanity forever.
What is CRISPR and how does it operate? Bacteria and viruses have been struggling against one another since the start of life. So-called bacteriophages or phages hunt bacteria. In the ocean, pages kill 40% of bacteria every single day. Phages do this by imputing their own genetic code into the bacteria and taking control of them to use them as factories. The bacteria tried to resist but failed most the time because their protection tools are also light. Only sometimes the bacteria survive an attempt. But if they do so, they can activate their most effective antivirus system. They preserve a portion of the virus DNA in their own genetic code in a DNA archive called CRISPR. Here it’s stored safely until it’s required.
When the virus attacks again, the bacterium quickly makes an RNA copy from the DNA archive and arms a secret weapon, a protein called CAS9. The protein now scans the bacterium’s insides for signs of the virus invader by comparing every bit of DNA it finds to the sample from the archive. When it finds a perfect match, it’s activated and cuts away the virus DNA, making it useless, protecting the bacterium against the onslaught. What’s peculiar is that CAS9 is very precise, nearly like a DNA surgeon. The revolution started when scientists figured out that the CRISPR system is programmable. You can present it a copy of DNA you want to modify and put the specific arrangement into a living cell. Apart from being precise, cheap, and easy, CRISPR offers the ability to edit live cells, to switch genes on and off, target, and study particular DNA sequences. It also goes for every character of cells which include microorganisms, plants or Animals. But despite the revolution CRISPR is for science, it’s nevertheless only a first generation instrument. More precise tools are already being created and are being used right now. In 2015, scientists used CRISPR to cut out the HIV virus from living cells in the laboratory, proving it was really possible. But approximately a twelve months afterward, they took out a larger scale project with rats that had the HIV virus in basically all of their body cells. By injecting CRISPR into the rat’s tails, they were capable to remove over than 50% of the virus from cells all over the physical structure of the rat. In a few decades, a CRISPR therapy might cure HIV and other retroviruses, viruses that hide in human DNA like Herpes could be eliminated this way. CRISPR could also end one of humanity’s worst enemies, cancer. Cancer happens when cells refuse to stop living and keep multiplying while concealing themselves from the immune system. CRISPR gives us the means to edit your immune cells and train them to be better cancer hunters. Getting rid of cancer might eventually stand for getting only a couple of injections of a few thousand of your own cells that have been organized in the lab to cure you for good. The first clinical test for a CRISPR cancer treatment on human patients was approved in early 2016 in the US.
Not a month later, Chinese scientists announced that they would treat lung cancer patients with immune cells modified with CRISPR in August 2016. Things are picking up pace quickly. And then there are genetic diseases. There are thousands of them and they range from mildly irritating to deadly or entail decades of pain. With a powerful tool like CRISPR, we may be able to stop this. Over 3,000 genetic diseases are caused by a single wrong letter in your DNA. We are already making an edited version of CAS9 that is created to change only a single letter, fixing the disease in the cubicle. In a decade or two, we could possibly cure thousands of diseases forever. But all of these medical applications have one thing in common, they are restrained to the individual and die with them, leave out if you employ them on reproductive cells or very early embryos. But crisper can and likely will be practiced a lot more. The creation of modified humans, designer babies, and will mean gradual, but irreversible changes to the human gene pool. The means to edit the genome of a human embryo already exists. Though the engineering science is yet in its early phases, it has already been tried twice.
In 2015 and 2016 by Chinese scientists. They experimented with human embryos and were partially successful in their second try. They demonstrated the tremendous challenges we still face in gene editing embryos, but also that scientists are figuring out ways to resolve them. No affair what your personal take on genetic engineering, it will impress you. Modified humans could change the genome of our entire species, because their engineered traits will be handed along to their children and could spread over generations, slowly changing the whole gene pool of humanity. It will go slow at first. The first designer babies will not be overly contrived. It’s most probable that they will be created to do away with a deadly genetic disease running in a family. As the technology advances and grows more refined, more and more people may debate that not using genetic modification is unethical because it condemns children to preventable suffering and death and denies them the cure.
As soon as the first engineered kid is born, a door is opened that can’t be closed anymore. Early on, vanity traits will mostly be given unaccompanied. But as genetic modification becomes more accepted and our knowledge of our genetic code enhances, the temptation will arise. If you make your offspring immune to Alzheimer, why not also give them the advantage of enhanced metabolism? Why not drop in perfect eyesight? Why not height or muscular structure? Full hair? How about applying your kid the gift of extraordinary intelligence? Huge changes are formed as an outcome of the personal decisions of millions of individuals that gather. This is a tricky slope. Modified humans could become the new normal or standard. But as this technology becomes more normal and our knowledge improves, we could figure out the single biggest mortality risk factor, aging.
Two-thirds of the 150,000 people who died today will die of age-associated causes. Currently, we think aging is caused by the accumulation of damage to our cells, like DNA breaks and the systems responsible for fixing those that are wearing off over time. But on that point are also factors that directly touch on aging. A combination of genetic technology and other therapy could hinder or slow down aging, possibly even reverse it. We know from nature that there are animals immune to aging. Perhaps we could even adopt a few genes for ourselves. Some scientists even think biological aging could be something that eventually stops being. We would yet pass away at some time, but instead of doing so in hospitals at age 90, we might be able to spend a few thousand years with our loved ones. Research into this is in its babyhood, and many scientists are rightly skeptical about the stoppage of aging. The challenges are enormous and perhaps it is unattainable, but it is conceivable the people alive today might be the first to benefit from effective anti-aging therapy. All we might need is for somebody to convince a smart billionaire to build it their next problem to work out. On a larger shell, we certainly could solve many problems by throwing a modified population. Engineered humans might be better fitted to cope with high-energy food, getting rid of many diseases of civilization like obesity. In possession of a modified immune system, with a library of potential threats, we might become resistant to most diseases that haunt us today. Even further into the future, we could engineer humans to be outfitted for extended space travel and to cope with different conditions on other planets, which would be exceedingly helpful in keeping us living in our hostile universe. However, a few major challenges await us some technological, some ethical.
Many of you reading this will fear uncomfortable and fear that we will create a world in which we will eliminate non-perfect humans and pre-select features and qualities based on our estimate of what’s good for you. The thing is we are already dwelling in this universe. Tests for dozens of hereditary diseases or complications have become standard for pregnant women in much of the globe. Often the mere intuition of a genetic defect can lead to the final stage of a pregnancy. Take Down syndrome, for example, one of the most common genetic defects. In Europe, around 92 % of all pregnancies where it’s detected are terminated. The conclusion to terminate a pregnancy is incredibly personal, but it’s important to recognize the reality that we are pre-selecting humans based on medical conditions. There is also no use in affecting this will shift, and then we have to move cautiously and respectfully as we gain the technology and can constitute more and more choices. Only none of this will take place before long.
As powerful as CRISPR is, it’s not infallible yet. Wrong edits still happen as good as unknown errors that can happen anywhere in the DNA and might blend in unnoticed. The gene edit might achieve the wanted effect, disabling a disease, but also might accidentally trigger unwanted changes. We simply don’t know enough yet about the complex interplay of our genes to avoid unpredictable results. Working on accuracy and monitoring methods is a major business organization as the first human tests begin. And since we’ve talked about a possible positive future, there are darker visions too. Imagine what a totalitarian regime could do if they embraced genetic engineering. Could a state cement its rule forever by using this on their people? What would stop them from engineering an army of modified super soldiers? It is doable in theory. Scenarios like this one are far, far off into the future if they ever become possible at all. But the basic proof of concept for genetic engineering like this already exists today. The technology really is that powerful. This may be a tempting incentive to ban genetic editing and related research, but that would certainly be a mistake. Banning human genetic technology would only go to the science wandering off to a station with jurisdiction and regulations that we are uncomfortable with. Simply by participating can we make sure that further inquiry is guided by caution, reason, oversight, and transparency.
Most of us have something wrong with them. In the future that lies in front of us, would we have been permitted to live? The engineering is certainly a bit chilling, but we deliver a lot to get ahead, and genetic engineering might just be a step in the natural development of intelligent species in the world. We might end the disease. We could offer our life expectancy by centuries and travel to the headliners. There’s no need to think small when it adds up to this issue. Whatever your view on genetic technology, the future is approaching no matter what. What has been in the past only an insane science fiction idea is about to become our new reality, a reality full of opportunities and challenges. What do you think the future holds for our species? How should we go about using or regulating this powerful technology? I will leave these questions up to you.