It’s Not Science Fiction Anymore

The rate of technological change these days is mind-boggling. I still haven’t gotten my head around 3D printing. And now, evidently, it is possible to email an organism.

In fact, genes, even entire organisms, can already move virtually – squishy and biological at each end, but nothing more than a series of ones and zeros while en route. The tiny virus that causes influenza is a leading-edge example of technical developments.

Today, when a new strain of influenza appears in Asia, scientists collect a throat swab, isolate the virus, and run the strain’s genetic sequence. If they then post that strain’s sequence on the Internet, American and European laboratories may be able to synthesize the new virus from the downloaded data faster and more easily than if they wait for a courier to deliver a physical sample. The virus can spread faster electronically than it does in nature. (Source)

Obviously this requires scientists at both ends of the email, but will it always? How soon before our seed orders are emailed to us?

More complicated viruses and some bacteria are in the range of such techniques today, though wholly synthesizing a higher organism with a more complex genome, such as maize, is many years away. But that may not matter, as new gene-editing technologies, like CRISPR-Cas9, enable scientists to stitch together complicated new organisms, using gene sequence information from organisms to which they do not have physical access.

For example, the key traits of a drought-resistant maize from a Zapotec community in Oaxaca, Mexico, might be reproduced by editing the genes of another maize variety. No major new advance in the technology is needed to unlock this possibility.

CRISPR (pronounced “Crisper”) technology is already leaving the GMO technology of the 1990’s in the dust. Nowadays to engineer a gene for desirable traits doesn’t require the introduction of DNA from another species or organism (as is done with GMOs). Instead the engineers can just edit the existing genetic material. So, for example, the genes of pigs can be edited to make them resistant to disease. The genes of cattle can be edited to make them naturally polled, eliminating the need to burn off their horns. Pigs that grow faster, vegetables that grow larger, bees that are mite resistant, the list goes on and on. All these things are happening now (read more HERE).

Obviously CRISPR technology won’t be limited to non-human animals. It’s already being used to engineer animal organs that can be used as human transplants, for example. And if scientists can edit out the gene that causes pigs to get PRRS, why wouldn’t they edit out the genes that cause humans to get cancer? And while they’re removing the cancer-causing genes, why not genetically correct near-sightedness? Why not bump the IQ 20 points while they’re at it? Why not assure the optimum height? Etc.

It seems to me it isn’t a question of whether these kinds of things are going to happen. It’s just a question of how soon.

Of course it sounds like Dr. Frankenstein to us now. But in their day so did blood transfusions, pacemakers, artificial hearts, organ transplants, etc.

We live in amazing times, with both great potential for exciting progress, and great risk.