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.

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27 comments on “It’s Not Science Fiction Anymore

  1. MansWhirld says:

    And to think that when we were born, email didn’t even exist! Amazing advances.

    Like

  2. Ed says:

    Sometimes I am glad that I’m old enough that I won’t be around to see all the ethical problems that occur by doing such stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

    • avwalters says:

      I, too, am relieved to be old. And relieved that I have no children to thumb their noses at me and say, “This is what you’ve left us.”

      Like

    • Bill says:

      Originally as agriculture industrialized it seems to me there was a complete disregard of animal welfare, for example. I find it interesting that now animal welfare is one of the explicit rationales they’re using to promote Crisper technology.

      The ethical questions we have to face with human enhancement and AI, for example, are really unparalleled in human history. It’s certainly an interesting time to be an ethicist.

      And don’t be so sure you won’t be around to see it. These things are happening VERY fast. The rate of change and discovery these days is almost unbelievable.

      Like

  3. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, some pretty wild stuff is coming as science and technology bond together. It’s always the things scientists didn’t think about that come back to bite us when they fool with nature. It all sounds wonderful in theory but practicality some times has a different path. I am in agreement that it will happen and there will be no stopping it.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but as I read the article the changes made will spread through the species once released. If that’s true, there will be no preserving the Heirloom seeds or animals that have been targeted. It all sounds good up front but it sure scares me.

    Have a great reality day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      The first article I linked mentions the threat to heirlooms. With the ability to sequence the DNA, transmit that digitally, then “reanimate” it elsewhere, there is a danger that corporations will use the technology to monopolize seeds.

      The second article I linked (“How Gene Editing Will Change Agriculture”) is even more fascinating, in my opinion. The stuff that they’re doing already is astonishing, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. After I read it I told Cherie that I wonder how much of what we’re doing now will be completely obsolete in the near future. I was reminded of when I taped all my albums onto cassette tapes, or when I transferred all of my family’s old super-8 movies to VHS.

      Like

  4. avwalters says:

    We live in amazing times, especially so if you write science fiction. Me, I confess I see mostly the dark side. What will get us first? Fukushima contamination? Climate change (or its companion hordes of migrating diseases and pests, or perhaps ocean inundation, or even oxygen starvation as the plankton that make our atmosphere succumb to warming oceans), thirst–when fresh water sources are depleted, (only to be sold back at exorbitant prices in small plastic bottles) or contaminated by fracking spoils, the accidental release of some unforeseeably horrific modified organism, or will we be trampled under the manmade horrors of fascism? Every one of these scenarios is fodder for the SciFi crowd. Me? I’m happy to stay home and deal with the challenges of gardening and beekeeping in changing, sometimes frightening times.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Scott says:

    Don’t open that spam email! It’ll seed your whole garden with weeds!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Marvelous indeed, Bill, and equally frightening. I’ve always thought that with great power goes great responsibility. Unless our responsibility catches up, we could be in a heap of trouble. –Curt

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      Yep. You shouldn’t play God unless you’ve got your ethical boundaries very well defined.

      The status quo bias is one of the most powerful of human cognitive biases. We’re hardwired, it seems, to prefer the status quo to change and to believe that if change occurs it will be for the worse. That helps keep unwise change in check, and has been able to slow change, but only temporarily. Eventually change (“progress”) prevails. But we’re venturing into completely new waters now with the advances in AI, neuroscience and genetics.

      Human enhancement is a particularly troublesome issue. Intuitively nearly everyone feels that it’s wrong. Yet because it occurs incrementally, and because the incremental changes don’t feel wrong, we’re already well along the path. Long ago someone invented eyeglasses. Later contact lenses were invented. I’ve had lasik surgery. I suppose if you had asked folks 50 years ago whether wearing glasses was an ethically acceptable way to enhance vision they would have said yes. If you’d asked them whether using a laser to reshape the cornea was OK, they likely would’ve said no. I expect that in the future nearsightedness will be a thing of the past (due to genetic editing), like polio, and no one think there are any ethical problems with that.

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      • It’s a tough one, Bill. And the speed of change now seems to be increasing exponentially. It is frightening to contemplate even with the best/purest of intentions, and I am an optimistic type of person. It’s like we have to make a giant leap forward in evolution in order to survive. And maybe we will do that by altering our genetic make-up. But where does that lead us? –Curt

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  7. BeeHappee says:

    See, that is why I had not started my homestead, just waiting for that day when seeds are delivered and sowed by few pushes of the button, and all my chickens can be perfectly mutated to lay two eggs per day year round. . . Either that, or I need some mutations on my laziness gene.
    Wow. Where do we end this?

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Just google “Farmbot.” Coming soon to a garden near you. 🙂

      But seriously, the question you ask is the most important one. Where does it end? Long ago Wendell Berry put it this way: “What are people for?”

      A friend sent me an article recently titled “Work is for Machines.” The article argued, very persuasively, that in the very near future robots will be able to do everything we now consider “work” (and “better” than we do it). Even intellectual work will be obsolete, as AI will have surpassed human intelligence. Then what is left for us at that point? Some are suggesting that once human work and human intelligence are unnecessary, we’ll put our emphasis on emotional intelligence and we’ll all be better off, having been liberated from work. As someone who places great value on good work, that doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t want to live in a world without meaningful human work. But I’ve read that something like 90% of people say they’d quit their jobs immediately if they didn’t have to work to make ends meet, so for them I suppose a world without work would be a good thing.

      I don’t know where it all ends, but I do know that we’re going to see some amazing changes over the next couple of decades. I plan to be mostly a spectator. I enjoy gardening and tending animals the old-fashioned way and I don’t plan to change. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Leigh says:

        That’s the problem. With humans it never ends.

        Like

      • Scott says:

        Well, of course I want to quit my job. But that’s so that I can do work similar to what you do. I’m a big believer in good hard work, where folks are able.

        Like

      • Bill says:

        It’s interesting that the advocates of a work-free future say that once we’re not required to work to make a living, people will be able to spend their time painting, composing symphonies, writing novels, etc. (or maybe homesteading, as you and I would do). But others argue that isn’t realistic. While some folks might do that, many others would just sit on the couch smoking pot and playing video games. One scenario I saw has some people voluntarily continuing to work (on things like inventing new smart phone apps) while all the people who used to do the manual labor are given a stipend to live on instead. The author said life for them would be like being put on an Indian reservation.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Leigh says:

    Honestly? I am convinced that f the Lord God does not intervene at some point in the near future, then humanity will kill itself off.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I reckon that’s possible, but I have a more sanguine view of things. Some of the biggest challenges we face these days come from overpopulation, due to the fact that we’re now doing such a good job of living through the things that used to kill us (like childbirth, influenza and famines).

      Like

  9. shoreacres says:

    Personally, I feel that the iGadgets already are transforming people, and not for the better. We’re becoming passive, disconnected from one another and from the natural world: which is to say, from the world of cause and effect.

    Have you read anything by Doug Tallamy, author of “Bringing Nature Home”? He makes the point that we’re not only separating our children from nature, we’re teaching them to be afraid of nature: incapable of functioning in the natural world. His conclusion is that developing an emotional attachment to nature in children is an important first step in stopping and reversing some of the unhappy developments around us. I agree.

    All that said, I have a couple of cool links for you. Here’s an article about CRISPR technology being used to increase yields, and here’s a link to The Land Institute, which you may know. Their deal, in the simplest terms, is using the prairie as a model for sustainable agriculture. It’s very interesting.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      So many interesting topics in your comment…

      Devices like smartphones and personal computers can be seen as elements of human transition to cyborgs or transhumanism (a process that is already well underway). Many have observed that such devices serve to replace or augment some of the things we used to use our brains for. Who memorizes phone numbers any more, for example? Essentially they are becoming extensions of ourselves, particularly as they are now incorporating AI technology that is user-specific. Fascinating.

      Yes, I am familiar with Mr. Tallamy’s work. I think he coined the expression “nature deficit disorder.” My intuition is that he is absolutely right in his concern that our increasing separation from nature damages us, especially children.

      Just today I received Vegetable Grower magazine and it has a fascinating article about CRSPR technology. I’m astonished at how rapidly this technology is advancing. It was only discovered 4 years ago!! Things like increased vegetable yields are easy with this technology. Today I saw an article saying researchers have already shaved two weeks off tomato maturity dates for example. Even more astonishing are the human applications. They’ve been able to edit the HIV virus out of cells for example. And they’ve edited out the genetics that prevent pig organs from being transplanting into humans, with the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives per year. There seems to be almost nothing that can’t be done with this technology, on both animal and vegetable cells. They’ve already begun releasing mosquitoes that are unable to transmit malaria. The Crspr-engineered traits are heritable, so the idea is to eliminate malaria by eliminating the ability of mosquitoes to transmit it. With the way this research is snowballing it is mind-boggling to think of how different the world may be, very soon.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bill says:

        Oh, yeah. The Land Institute. Their work is also amazing. They’ve been working on developing a perennial grain for quite a while. If they succeed, it will eliminate the need for tillage.

        Like

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