The Incredible Genomics Revolution & The Pressing Issues it Will Force Us to Address
Gene editing forces us to grapple with the tricky issue of where to draw the line when manipulating human genetics. Some people view any form of genetic manipulation as heinous, a perverse violation of the sacred laws of nature and the dignity of life. Others see the genome simply as software — something we can fix, clean, update, and upgrade — and argue that leaving human beings at the mercy of faulty genetics is not only irrational, but immoral. Considerations like these have led some to [demand] an outright ban on [human genome editing], and others to [urge] scientists to forge ahead without restraint.
Jennifer Doudna, Nobel Prize Winner and CRISPR pioneer
We are living through a genomics revolution, and it’s only accelerating in its progression.
Thanks to gene-editing tools like CRISPR, cancer patients are conquering their illness with turbo-charged immune cells, people are being cured of lifelong diseases, and scientists are devising ways to restore coral reefs destroyed by climate change. We are attaining greater mastery over how we manipulate the code of life.
In 2018, the world’s first “CRISPR children” (endowed with HIV immunity) were born in China. Despite the Chinese scientist responsible for this being thrown in prison, experiments like these will almost certainly continue. In fact, much of the public backlash was about the risky and underhanded way the procedure was conducted, not necessarily its intended goal.
Fictional movies and TV shows foreshadow an age where genome editing is commonplace, but given how monumental the implications are, shouldn’t our grasp of this topic be factually based? Wouldn’t it be nice to know when exactly these practices will become mainstream, and how specifically they will affect our lives?
Experts predict we’re 20–30 years away from directly altering traits such as personality, height, and intelligence in unborn children. Because these traits are polygenic (i.e influenced by multiple genes), it is not yet possible to edit them precisely.
However, here’s what we can expect over the next 10–13 years. As iPSC (Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell) technology is further refined, fewer and fewer couples will conceive children in the traditional way. By offering a skin sample to a fertility clinic, a prospective mother can have thousands of her skin cells converted into egg cells, allow the father’s semen sample to fertilize them in a lab, then have the embryos assigned risk scores with the help of predictive analytics and A.I.
Before the parents decide which embryo to implant via IVF (in-vitro fertilization), they will have a high probability forecast of their child’s traits. They will screen out embryos with genetic disorders, and know if their kid is likely to be extraverted, artistically or mathematically inclined, witty, etc.
Having children via IVF will become the norm, and parents who don’t pre-screen their embryos will be seen as reckless and irresponsible in developed countries.
These remarkable breakthroughs will touch your life in one way or another. Women who are infertile, or feel their child-bearing days are behind them, will be presented with an enticing option: undergo a simple iPSC procedure and let a surrogate carry their baby to term. Countries that are slow to embrace genome editing, or are too politically divided to address the topic sensibly, will fall behind others that not only encourage it but freely offer these services to the public (to prevent inequalities from tearing their country apart).
Given that we humans are on the verge of steering our own evolution, the world’s top bioethicists and scientists are feverishly sketching out what this future will look like. Jonathan Anomaly’s Creating Future People: The Ethics of Genetic Enhancement gives us a sneak peek into 3 pressing challenges that await us.
1) How will we manage “Each-We” dilemmas?
Performing intricate edits on human embryos, as opposed to selecting the best out of thousands via iPSC, isn’t in our near-term future, but once it is, we will be confronted with several ‘Each-We’ dilemmas. Simply put, too many parents altering their children in seemingly beneficial ways actually creates a potential nightmare for society.
Let’s say every member of a certain generation possesses an identical gene sequence that gives them immunity to heart disease. While this appears to be a benefit, if there are unexpected downsides to that enhancement, that entire generation risks being devastated by it. Also, attempts to make one’s child attractive could be self-defeating: too many parents sharing the same concepts of beauty could result in hordes of similarly-looking children, forcing new standards of attractiveness to arise.
How parents choose to alter their kids will be dependent on how others are altering theirs. The laws and norms of a nation will dictate how people enhance their children (and how transparent they are about it), which raises the next question…
2) Will gene-editing accelerate the fragmentation of the nation-state?
As I’ve discussed in a previous article, during this century, we will see radical changes in how societies are structured. Increased opportunities to earn a living remotely (as well as in virtual worlds), along with the maturation of the crypto-asset space, will drastically reduce the power nations can wield over individuals. All over the world, people will move to wherever they get the best value for their tax dollars.
Embryonic gene enhancement may accelerate this shift for two reasons. First off, even if this practice is proven to be safe and effective, it is unlikely to be immediately embraced by all countries (even first-world ones). Nations may place severe restrictions on it, causing some of their citizens to undergo the procedure overseas or permanently emigrate.
Second, in order to share in the productivity of genetically-enhanced peoples, forward-thinking countries may establish “autonomous zones” within their borders, allowing for the creation of micro-states and self-governing provinces. Similar to how the U.K protects the Cayman Islands militarily, yet allows them to write their own laws, in the coming decades, there will likely be micro-states where people supportive of genome editing can experiment with how their society is structured (and take risks in genetic research that other countries won’t).
People born with alterations that make them more cooperative and perceptive will leave areas where they are harassed. In some countries, their births will be viewed as an outrage against God; that thousands of leftover embryos will be destroyed after iPSC procedures will infuriate religious extremists and pro-lifers. Many of the genetically enhanced will seek to congregate with one another, and their societies will be among the highest functioning on the planet.
As gene-editing techniques improve, the natural world will be reshaped as well, bringing us to our final concern…
3) How will the de-extinction of animal species and “gene drives” affect the ecosystem?
Efforts are already underway to resurrect extinct species and re-introduce them into nature. Revive & Restore, a wildlife conservation company, has spent several years attempting to weave fragments of preserved woolly mammoth DNA into that of the Asian Elephant, its closest living relative. It is only a matter of time until woolly mammoths roam the uppermost parts of North America and Eurasia.
This is being pursued for sensible reasons: woolly mammoths are expected to interact with the Arctic terrain in a way that reduces CO2 emissions from permafrost. The danger lies in how responsibly other nations and private companies pursue similar aims. If a resurrected species wanders off (or is intentionally placed) in a foreign habitat, that entire ecosystem could be thrown out of whack.
However, the much larger development drawing the attention of philanthropists, farmers, and even counter-terrorism experts is gene drive technology. It will soon become possible to “drive” customized traits into the populations of fast-breeding organisms — mosquitoes and other insects can have their genomes altered so that virtually all of their descendants inherit certain traits.
Throughout the globe, mosquito-borne diseases like malaria kill over 700,000 people every year. Because these deaths are mostly clustered in one area (sub-Saharan Africa), plans are being made to drive malarial-immunity into their local mosquito population (so they can’t transmit the illness to humans).
Since the sub-Saharan Anopheles mosquito has a lifespan of two weeks, it would only take several months for a successful gene drive to eliminate malaria from the entire region. As older Anopheles generations die off, only a relatively small number of gene-altered mosquitoes would need to mate with the surviving ones to foster widespread immunity.
Although we should be optimistic about the benefits of gene drives, because the tools needed to pursue this are cheap and easily accessible, national security experts are discussing the very real possibility it is weaponized by terrorists. Malicious actors could decimate the agriculture of a chosen area by introducing genes that sterilize pollinators, or alter mosquitoes so they produce vicious toxins and thrive in foreign environments.
After a successful gene drive experiment at UC San Diego, the scientists involved estimated that, had their gene-altered fruit flies escaped the research lab, their traits would have spread to 20–50% of the global fruit fly population. The evidence suggesting COVID-19 leaked out of the Wuhan virology lab continues to strengthen, so the idea of a horrific gene-drive crisis breaking out in the future has to be taken seriously.
The fast-approaching breakthroughs in genomics will completely revolutionize society, and evoke all sorts of intense emotions from us. Politicians and lawmakers will despair over where exactly to draw the line when it comes to appropriate genetic enhancements. Prospective parents suffering from gene disorders will feel immense gratitude knowing their kids won’t inherit their illness. You yourself will read shocking headlines about black market gene-editing operations in oppressive countries, and see clips of humans and pets with absurd, mind-boggling gene alterations (especially in countries with zero restraints on the practice).
Transitioning into the next phase of our evolution, one where future generations are crafted by human design, will likely be more bizarre and thrilling than anyone expects. Complications and disasters will certainly arise, but if we remain as adaptable and innovative as we’ve always been, we’ll triumph in the end.