Human genomics is just beginning: The Earth has 50 billion tons of DNA. What happens when we have the entire biocode? by Dawn Field, Aeon
Adam Rifkin stashed this in CRISPR
Gene editing experiments are accelerating at a pace few people realize.
In case you weren’t paying attention, a lot has been happening in the science of genomics over the past few years. It is, for example, now possible to read one human genome and correct all known errors. Perhaps this sounds terrifying, but genomic science has a track-record in making science fiction reality. ‘Everything that’s alive we want to rewrite,’ boasted Austen Heinz, the CEO of Cambrian Genomics, last year.
But one of CRISPR’s co-developers, Jennifer Doudna of the University of California in Berkeley, has ‘strongly discouraged’ any attempts to edit the human genome pending a review of the ethical issues. Well, thanks to China, that ship has sailed. Indeed, now the technology appears to be finding its way into the hands of hobbyists: Nature recently reported that members of the ‘biohacker’ sub-culture have been messing around with CRISPR, though the enthusiast they interviewed didn’t appear to have a clear idea of what he wanted to do with it.
Given that our genetic abilities appear to be reaching a critical threshold, it is worth taking a fairly hard-headed look at what the next few years promise. For instance, could DNA solve some of our pressing energy issues? One project hopes to engineer trees that glow in the dark. You can sign up to preorder one now – at least the weed version of it; trees take too long to mature to be good prototypes. Perhaps the day is not far off when our streets are lined with bioluminescent foliage. This would presumably drive electric streetlamps into obsolescence, like so many other energy-hungry ‘old-fashioned’ technologies.
But this is hardly the only potentially revolutionary project that aims to play out in the next five to 10 years. Venter is working on re-engineering pig lungs so that they can be used in human transplants. This could have a much larger impact than is immediately obvious: about one in 10 deaths in Europe is caused by lung disease. Farther afield, Venter is in the race to find life on Mars with DNA sequencers, and is developing methods of ‘biological teleportation’ – the idea is that you sequence microbial DNA on Mars and then reconstruct the genomes on Earth using 3D printing. The process could work the other way around, too. Venter and Elon Musk are talking of using this technology to terraform Mars with 3D-printed earthly microbes. The whole thing boggles the imagination, of course, but Venter and Musk do have form for pulling off amazing feats. Nevertheless, perhaps we should start our tour of the horizon closer to home.
By 2020, many hospitals will have genomic medicine departments, designing medical therapies based on your personal genetic constitution. Gene sequencers – machines that can take a blood sample and reel off your entire genetic blueprint – will shrink below the size of USB drives. Supermarkets will have shelves of home DNA tests, perhaps nestled between the cosmetics and medicines, for everything from whether your baby will be good at sports to the breed of cat you just adopted, to whether your kitchen counter harbours enough ‘good bacteria’. We will all know someone who has had their genome probed for medical reasons, perhaps even ourselves. Personal DNA stories – including the quality of the bugs in your gut– will be the stuff of cocktail party chitchat.
By 2025, projections suggest that we will have sequenced the genomes of billions of individuals. This is largely down to the explosive growth in the field of cancer genomics. Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, became one of the early adopters of genomic medicine when he had the cancer that killed him sequenced. Many others will follow. And we will become more and more willing to act on what our genes tell us. Just as the actress Angelina Jolie chose to undergo a double mastectomy to stem her chances of developing breast cancer, society will think nothing of making decisions based on a wide range of genes and gene combinations. Already a study has quantified the ‘Angelina Jolie effect’. Following her public announcement, the number of women turning to DNA testing to assess their risk for familial breast cancer doubled.
For better or worse, we will increasingly define ourselves by our DNA. There are hints of this already in the issues of privacy surrounding disease genes such as the ApoE gene, the largest known genetic determinant of Alzheimer’s disease. In 2007, James Watson – one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA – became the second person ever to have his genome sequenced. He refused to learn whether he had the ApoE gene, terrified that he would meet the same fate as his mother, who died of dementia. At the other end of the spectrum, John Wilbanks, a proponent of genomic openness, freely admitted that his profile carried a risk of Alzheimer’s. Society will have to develop new norms to cope with such dilemmas, but whether they will stick closer to the path of Watson or Wilbanks remains to be seen.
The first sentence pretty much destroys the article:
At this point, the article's claim "It is, for example, now possible to read one human genome and correct all known errors." is - using a mundane ecpression - bullsh*t. reading yes, correcting single errors by CRISPR/Cas yes. given that we know what the "error" is as e.g. in huntington disease or cystic fibrosis. as there is no single 'human genome' which could serve as template for correcting supposed errors on a larger scale, the claim is absurd. and a hit right in the face of serious science. and a missed chance to communicate science to the public in a honest way. sorry, dawn, to put it so explicitly.
It'll probably be ignored, though.
I found that point in the Reddit comments: