The act of god(s) is the act of creation. Countless religions have myths recounting the genesis of life, the creation of sentient beings, and inanimate objects. From the renegade Titan Prometheus fashioning humanity from clay to the fascinating story of humankind springing forth from the tears of Wedjat (Eye of Ra) in ancient Egyptian religion. I think there’s a point to be made here about man’s aspiration to create. Most of the spiritual systems and religions designed by humans reflect the lofty aspirations of the societies that birthed them. The supernatural entities and intricate legends try to codify what needs to be attained, what needs to be gained to transcend human limitations. And as such, the act of creation can be viewed as another milestone in human fulfillment.
These concepts are expounded in countless science fiction titles. Mankind’s fascination with the manipulation of life is recounted in the cautionary book written by the prolific H.G Wells in 1896 – entitled The Island of Doctor Moreau. In the story, a scientist with the same name dabbles in vivisection in an effort to create the best human-animal hybrid – giving rise to grotesque and tortured beings with painful subjective self-awareness. In 1932 another sci-fi book entitled A Brave New World was written by Aldous Huxley. The book paints a dystopian world where humanity has developed mastery over human genetics and as such employs state-level interventions where people are engineered to occupy certain strata of society, performing genetically predetermined tasks, ranging from the intelligentsia to menial labor.
Well, real life has caught up to science fiction. The doors were blasted opened after the discovery of a sequence of bacterial DNA called CRISPR by two, hard-core, gender-ceiling-smashing scientists, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. What makes this discovery so fascinating is that it enables the isolation and excision of specific genetic sequences. It can also be used to edit DNA information. Yes, edit. How can this be applied in the real world? Well, for one thing, it can be used to edit and remove specific sequences that have known links with genetic disorders – look at the fetal genetic information, isolate the offending sequence, change it. But what if you want to influence other characteristics? What if you want a baby with purple eyes? Gigantic stature? Astronomical IQ? The possibilities are endless, and the ethical dilemmas manifold. It wouldn’t be crazy to assume that new designer babies might start popping up all over. This will probably have to wait owing to the complicated pattern of genetic influence on human traits.
The invention and democratization of CRISPR have led to the rise of Biohackers. These are everyday Joes who have started playing with genetic codes from the comfort of their homes. Some companies sell ready-to-use and simplified CRISPR kits online. One-click and you have in your possession an incredibly powerful tool – which when you think about it shouldn’t be easily available. Nevertheless, there is a veritable collection of people out in the world tampering with the source-code of various living organisms. Some have even raised concerns as they have been injecting themselves with DNA altering cocktails and sharing the videos on social media. Will such democratization help move the field along as more people with little moral compunctions and even less scientific knowledge tinker with human DNA?
What if we started inserting human genes – a process called gene splicing – into other animals? That’s already happening. Basically, scientists take human stem cells, put them inside animals, in order to grow human tissue, and in some cases organs. Imagine if they can take cells from you and grow you a nice kidney. Fascinating stuff. The worrying part is when we start to mess with more than isolated tissues and organs. Say you want to study the human brain and splice some DNA in a rat and let the embryo develop. What if the new rat develops subjective awareness – that significant piece of difference that makes humans, well humans? Things start to get sticky – even the possibility of A.I. gaining consciousness pales in comparison. All the plots written down in the countless books have become blueprints of what might possibly transpire.
What does it all mean? It means things are about to get super interesting. Many of these technologies are set to revolutionize the field of medicine, from preventing genetic diseases to seamless organ transplants. And for the wild wild west of gene editing? That remains to be seen.
Agazi Fitsum Gebreselassie, M.D., MGHD (Candidate)