Most people do not yet understand the potential impact of our newfound ability to edit and eventually rewrite genetic code, the blueprint for life itself.
At least, so say a number a number of experts in genetics and genomics. That idea was the major common thread in a series of interviews with some of the leading researchers in the field.
The latest gene-editing technology, known as CRISPR, can find and replace sections of DNA, turning genes on or off, removing harmful mutations, and potentially inserting helpful genetic mutations that could make people super-athletes or make them immune to certain diseases.
“We’re basically able to have a molecular scalpel for genomes,” Jennifer Doudna, a biologist frequently credited as one of the co-discoverers of this genetic editing system (and one of the first to use it), told Tech Insider. “All the technologies in the past were sort of like sledgehammers … This just gives scientists the capability do something that is incredibly powerful.”
“Most of the public,” Doudna told MIT Technology Review, “does not appreciate what is coming.”
Rewriting the blueprint for life
The ability to rewrite life’s code is so transformative that it might be harder to say what it can’t do than what it could.
As Amy Maxmen put it in a recent Wired feature, DNA editing could reshape the world:
It could at last allow genetics researchers to conjure everything anyone has ever worried they would — designer babies, invasive mutants, species-specific bioweapons, and a dozen other apocalyptic sci-fi tropes. It brings with it all-new rules for the practice of research in the life sciences. But no one knows what the rules are.
Looking at the way that computer technology transformed the world is perhaps the best way to try to conceptualize how big a deal this is, according to Dr. Scott Fahrenkrug.
Fahrenkrug is the CEO of a Minnesota company called Recombinetics that’s using genetic editing to develop cattle that won’t have to go through a horrific dehorning procedure and working on other innovations in both agriculture and medicine. “I think Silicon Valley and the computer revolution is the perfect analogy for what’s going on right now,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you there’s going to be a cow on every desktop, but this is really going to touch everyone’s lives.”
The computer revolution transformed everything from communication to manufacturing to politics and privacy and so much more. Computers have changed how we live and they continue to reshape the world every day.
Manipulating the building blocks of life could change just as much.
As Dustin Rubinstein, the head of a lab working with CRISPR and other genetic engineering tools at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, told us, genetic editing could transform everything from cancer research to neuroscience to chemical engineering and even energy production.
“You’re only limited by your imagination,” Rubinstein said.
For now at least, many of these applications are still in the future. We’re still learning how our genetic code actually codes for various traits and behaviors. Until we know exactly what changes we would want to make to a genome to create a smarter, stronger, or disease-free person, we’re just talking about theoretical potential instead of practical application.
But one of the most exciting things — or disconcerting things, for those scared of the power of this new technology — is that actually using the latest tools to make genetic edits is so simple that Doudna says that anyone who has basic molecular biology skills would be able to use CRISPR to edit a human embryo. People with sufficient expertise could probably set up a lab that would be able to make designer babies or transform animal species for less than $2,000, according to experts we spoke with.
We’re still waiting for a demonstration of genetic editing that will really sear it into the world’s consciousness. But for better or worse, the world-transforming power of this technology isn’t limited to the most technologically advanced and well funded labs.
“We live in a much more disrupted world, things aren’t top down,” Rubenstein says. The person who transforms the way the world sees genetics might be some biohacking enthusiast, not necessarily some well-funded lab, he says.
“What’s going to stop the next Bill Gates from tinkering in his garage?”