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viewpoint

Genetic engineering: a consumer good?

| Wednesday, August 31, 2016

In the 1950s, John von Neumann developed the first programmable computer at Princeton. It was larger than the room you are sitting in and less powerful than the laptop or cellphone you are reading this on. When asked how many computers the United States would need, he answered 18.

Three years ago, Elon Musk said in an interview with Khan Academy that if you’d asked people in 1963 what 2013 would look like, “They would have expected a base on the moon … and maybe even a base on Mars offering space hotels. If you told them, ‘Well, actually, there’ll be this device in your pocket … smaller than a deck of cards … that has access to all the world’s information … and you can talk to anyone on planet Earth,’ they would have said, ‘BS, there’s no way that’s going to be true.’”

My intention for these anecdotes is to portray the previous implausibility of domesticating the computing industry. What was originally intended to be used exclusively by research universities and governments has now become a consumer good. What’s more, the increasing trajectory towards openness and simplicity has turned everyone with some spare time into a potential programmer. This viewpoint is about the next techno-scientific domestication coming soon to a dorm room near you.

This summer, TIME ran an article on genetic engineering and a revolutionary technique for modifying DNA called CRISPR-Cas9. Genetic engineering, or biohacking, is the process of altering the DNA of a living cell. It is the biological equivalent of reprogramming a computer and changing the way it functions. CRISPR is a new procedure which makes it extremely easy to do this.

Think of CRISPR as a set of molecular scissors which can be programmed to cut a specific gene out of the genome. This allows scientists to determine the gene’s function in that cell and test what would happen if it were replaced by a different gene. What makes CRISPR so special is how simple it is to use.

Today, anybody with $130 and some spare time can order a basic CRISPR kit and attempt to alter the genome of a model species from the comfort of their home. Pair that with the wealth of free knowledge and data available on the internet and this means that we now have billions of potential garage-scientists looking for new ways to cure cancer, treat diabetes, alter eye color and so much more.

This is huge, because CRISPR is doing to genetic engineering what easy-to-use Apple computers and open-sourced code did to the computer industry. When Wired Magazine asked Bill Gates about it, he said that if he were young today, he “would be hacking biology, creating artificial life with DNA synthesis.” So what does this mean for the future of biology, and how will that affect you?

For starters, researchers have spent the last 30 years collecting information about specific genes and their functions, but until recently, we had limited methods of actually confirming what genes were responsible for what. This means that the scientific community has been sitting on a pile of raw gold with no efficient method of refining it down.

Now, with CRISPR, we can accurately determine a gene’s function in a fraction of the time it used to take. This gives scientists a way to do something with all the genetic information they have been cataloging, and according to Thomas Barnes, the chief scientific officer at biotech firm Intellia, “the moment CRISPR was introduced, everyone immediately knew what to do.”

Already, CRISPR has been used to produce impressive results in many medical fields, including correcting the genetic defect responsible for Duchenne muscular dystrophy in mice (the first step to fixing it in humans) and generating organs in pigs that are compatible for transplant into human bodies. It has also allowed for genetic exploration that was never before possible, like discovering a way to build “hulk-like” muscles in dogs, goats, rabbits, and monkeys, which Chinese researchers have reported doing.

Scientists at London’s Francis Crick Institute will soon begin by far the most important application of CRISPR. They plan on using it to remove and edit key development genes from unfertilized human embryos to determine how human beings are made. This is a major key we have been missing in solving many of the mysteries central to biology, like how mutations in specific development genes can cause the dramatically different anatomies of earth’s animals.

So, ready or not, the field of genetic engineering is rapidly becoming domesticated, just like computers and phones were not so long ago. I encourage you to think about this will mean. As an aspiring scientist myself, I am fully in support of research which would unlock new chapters of our evolutionary history. At the same time, I cannot help but feel that at some point on this path we may arrive at a line, which, once crossed, will forever change the nature of life.

Life is a good and we are constantly moving to support that good in new and controversial ways, but as we embark towards this next frontier, we must ask ourselves what it means to potentially complicate or even eliminate aspects of life itself in this pursuit. If given the freedom someday to redesign yourself; to change your phenotypic eye color or understand which genes would one day kill you; or to design the perfect child you always imagined, how far would you take it?

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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