Making It Up
What comes after genetic engineering?
Ever since its origin in the 1970s as “recombinant DNA,” some people have wrung their hands and cried alarm about how swapping and editing genes (made of DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid) in our food posed hazards of toxicity and ecological destruction. If we ever reached the point of doing the same with people, they cried, we would no longer be human! Of course, the technology moved forward, and it has in fact been applied to humans. So far the intent has been to correct genetic disorders (inherited diseases), with care being taken to keep modifications out of tissues that can produce sperm and eggs and thus send the changes on to future generations. Patients, by and large, seem to be in favor of fixing their diseases. Post-humanists are also in favor, for they imagine numerous ways the human body can be enhanced, from genetic redesigns to cyborgish implants (see the Humanity+ website at https://humanityplus.org/ ). Critics of the technology are distinctly less enthusiastic; they remain concerned that the technology will be used to change the basic human template. But Harvard Medical School’s George Church has quipped “What is the scenario that [they’re] actually worried about? That it won’t work well enough? Or that it will work too well?” See Gretchen Vogel, “Embryo Engineering Alarm,” Science, March 20, 2015.
And then something hit the fan. Just before the 2018 International Summit on Human Genome Editing, held in Hong Kong, China, He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, made headlines by announcing that he had genetically engineered twin girls who lack (at least in part) a gene that permits HIV to infect human cells. The kids are just babies now. If they grow up without ill effects from the gene tweak and have kids of their own, they will pass the change on. Dr. He’s goal, to figure out and test a defense against a nasty virus, is laudable. If the defense works and is widely implemented, a redesigned (in a small way) humanity can sigh with relief. But he was greeted with widespread dismay and condemnation, as well as calls for better international regulation, perhaps through the United Nations. See Jon Cohen, “What Now for Human Genome Editing?” Science (December 7, 2018). By January 2019, he was reportedly in state custody and facing possible execution (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2019/01/07/chinese-scientist-genetically-edited-babies-armed-guard-amid/ ).
It’s a kerfuffle. For Dr. He, it’s worse than that. Other researchers may also be reflecting on what such work could do to their career prospects, and even to their longevity. But though such responses may slow progress down a bit, they won’t stop it. So what’s next?
They call it “synthetic biology.” Instead of involving the moving and editing of genes, it involves making up new ones and putting them into bacteria, plants, animals, and maybe even, someday, people. And yes, it scares some people spitless. See James Mitchell Crow, “Life 2.0: Inside the Synthetic Biology Revolution,” Cosmos (April 17, 2018)(https://cosmosmagazine.com/biology/life-2-0-inside-the-synthetic-biology-revolution).
It began two decades ago, when researchers constructed a live poliovirus from simple lab chemicals. A decade later, researchers assembled a bacterial chromosome, stuck it in a bacterial cell that had been stripped of its genes, and Lo! It worked. Ultimately, researchers want to go much further, even to the point of creating synthetic organisms out of chemicals and totally artificial DNA, rather in the way kids build things out of Legos. There is even talk of making a new kind of genetic material (XNA) that doesn’t use the same components (nucleotides) as DNA.
The goal is to exert unprecedented control over what cells do. In testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Hearing on Developments in Synthetic Genomics and Implications for Health and Energy (May 27, 2010), Craig Venter said “The ability to routinely write the ‘software of life’ will usher in a new era in science, and with it, new products and applications such as advanced biofuels, clean water technology, food products, and new vaccines and medicines. The field is already having an impact in some of these areas and will continue to do so as long as this powerful new area of science is used wisely.”
Allen A. Cheng and Timothy K. Lu, “Synthetic Biology: An Emerging Engineering Discipline,” Annual Review of Biomedical Engineering (August 2012), see synthetic biology as bringing the engineering mindset to biology, with great potential for human health. Timothy K. Lu and Oliver Purcell, “Machine Life,” Scientific American (April 2016), discuss building into cells the biochemical equivalents of computer circuits so the cells can detect and treat illness and environmental pollution. There is even industrial potential. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched a program called Living Foundries “to create a new manufacturing capability for the United States” using synthetic cells.
Not surprisingly, some people think this kind of work challenges the divine monopoly on creation. Others fear that if one can construct one virus from scratch, one might construct others, such as the smallpox virus, or even tailor entirely new viruses with which natural immune systems and medical facilities could not cope. New bacterial diseases become possible as well. And there is the potential for new kinds of terrorism. In 2010, Vatican representatives declared that synthetic biology was “a potential time bomb, a dangerous double-edged sword for which it is impossible to imagine the consequences” and “Pretending to be God and parroting his power of creation is an enormous risk that can plunge men into barbarity”; see “Vatican Greets First Synthetic Cell with Caution,” America (June 7-14, 2010). As I was writing this essay, Vint Cerf published “Synthetic Organisms Are about to Challenge What ‘Alive’ Really Means” (https://www.wired.co.uk/article/artificial-life-vint-cerf). The definition of life isn’t as fragile as he seems to think, but his conclusion—“In 2019 we will need to begin a serious debate about whether artificially evolved humans are our future, and if we should put an end to these experiments before it is too late”—is very much on the “be cautious” side.
The “playing God” objection seems likely to grow louder as synthetic biology matures, but it is also likely to fade just as it has done after previous advances such as in vitro fertilization and surrogate mothering. According to one study, the general public already tends to approve of synthetic biology work aimed at “societal, medical, and sustainability needs” (Eleonore Pauwels, “Public Understanding of Synthetic Biology,” BioScience, February 2013). There is also a great deal of interest from investors.
Is the fuss premature? Not much has actually been accomplished so far. One gets the feeling that researchers are doing this stuff just because they think they can. But a team of plant scientists has inserted novel genes into tobacco plants to make photosynthesis more efficient. The plants grew 40 percent bigger, and the technique looks like it could be applied to food crops to increase production; see Julia Rosen, “Scientists Improve on Photosynthesis by Genetically Engineering Plants,” Los Angeles Times (January 4, 2019)(https://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-more-efficient-photosynthesis-20191003-story.html). And while this was “just” genetic engineering, not synthetic biology, it does speak to the potential value of these technologies.
Should we be worrying about the potential impact of synthetic biology? It can, of course, be misused. Eventually, it will surely be applied to human beings, first to cure or prevent disease, then to improve function, and then to add whole new features to the human package (Transhumanists, rejoice!).
But isn’t it really just genetic engineering? Wasn’t that “engineering mindset” already there before anyone coined this new label? Sure, but maybe they thought calling it “extreme genetic engineering” sounded more like something for a sports channel.