Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Brave New World

Prediction is hard, especially about the future, but something is going to happen with the technology called the CRISPR/Cas9 system. I've linked to the Gizmodo summary which is reasonably accessible, but it's very easy to come up with a whole lot more info using your favorite Internet search engine.

In a pistachio shell, this is a fairly new method for editing genes which provides higher efficiency (i.e., percent of targeted cells in which the desired edit is made) and accuracy (percent of cells in which an additional, undesired change occurs) than previous methods. If you're interested, it's derived from an immunologic system in bacteria and archaea that cuts up the genomes of invading viruses.

I was inspired to write about this today because of recent advances that improve the accuracy of the method. Even without fantastic accuracy, CRISPR/Cas9 will transform both biological research and biotechnology. We'll be able to learn a whole lot more about how specific genetic changes affect phenotypes. It will be possible to create designer organisms with much more specificity and detail than can be done today. You can speculate on the possible good and bad that may come of that but . . .
There is a specific organism called Homo sapiens that presents specific concerns. Right now, there is a voluntary international moratorium on genetic engineering of human germ cells and embryos. But, Chinese scientists recently tried it anyway on non-viable human zygotes (specifically, cells made for in vitro fertilization that had 3 sets of chromosomes) to see if they could fix the defect that causes the genetic disease beta thalessemia. They concluded that the technique wasn't ready for use in humans yet because it wasn't accurate enough.

However, what we are seeing today is that it's going to keep getting better. Moratorium or no, international ethical consensus or no, somebody is going to do it. They'll already be making meatier steers and milkier cows and goats that pis rayon. So why not make a smarter or taller or prettier person? It is true that we don't know enough about the multi-genetic determinants of most important human characteristics to do this yet, but we will. And people will do it.

Try to tell me why not.


Daniel said...

Biotechnology appears to have an exponential development curve similar to other technologies. Where do you think we are on that curve and when might it slope steeply up?

Cervantes said...

I think we're very close to an inflection point, actually. Clinical utility will be fairly slow since -- in well-regulated societies, at least, we need to be very careful about unanticipated consequences. However, bioengineering of other organisms and perhaps illicit experiments with humans will accelerate rapidly.