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Recent events involving the gene-altering technology astound the world. Chinese parents are “talent testing” their kids to get a better understanding of the child’s hidden potentials? A pair of twins’ embryos were gene edited by a Chinese scientist to gain HIV resistance and now the twins might have enhancement in brain function? Mike wrote a blog post about how the Silicon Valley giants have started “biohacking” to solve death. Indeed, these fairly new biotechnologies excite not only the research scientists and commercial biotech industries, but also people with genetic diseases and disabilities, and even futuristic thinkers who wish to live forever.
When you think about it, genome editing is not that much different than AI. Both industries bloomed in recent years, thanks to the increasingly faster computing power available. Both industries are currently going uphill, surrounded with mass excitement and uncertainty for the future. In both industries, we (humans) hold the key of creating something new,artificially reprogramming the building blocks of life/machine, whose ultimate goals are to make the “perfect” lifeform/machine. The question is — Are humans trying to play God? To break evolution and artificially select the future of our planet?
What is this CRISPR technology?
Since Watson and Crick published their hypothesis of the double helix structure of DNA in 1953, the genetics/genomics field has traveled far. The CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool was invented in 2014 by research scientists in UC Berkeley. CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is a section of DNA sequence found in prokaryotic organisms, eg. bacteria. A long long time ago, some virus infected these bacteria and the virus DNA survived and integrated into the bacteria DNA, resulting in immunity to similar virus infection and new functions, for example, photosynthesis. Even after many years of evolution, these former virus DNA still have the ability to integrate. Cas9 is a “molecular scissors” enzyme that can pinpoint and cut DNA strands at specific locations. What does this combination gives us? The ability to introduce pre-engineered DNA sequence into any organism! Think about the unlimited potential of what this technology presents!
You might think that genome editing is pretty far away from us and probably the only the top scientists have the technology to perform the procedure. Sorry to disappoint you but you are already surrounded with products of this technology. From the GMO (genetically modified organism) food to commercialized DNA ancestry kits like 23andMe, gene testing/editing is everywhere. Just last semester, I was in a bioinformatics research lab in Higgins and we performed some DNA sequencing of cuckoo finches and processed millions of data on our laptops. In fact, just like computer science, a lot of the information in biology is open-sourced and once a technique is discovered, research labs around the world take advantage of the technique. And concept is not difficult — with the correct ingredients and equipment, I can probably perform a gene editing procedure. The question is when and how to use it. In a TED talk by Paul Knoepfler, a professor at UC Davis, he explained that although the technology is still controversial, thousands of labs around the world are currently using it. He also delved into the controversial topic of “designer babies”.
Similar to the excitement to Dolly the first cloned sheep, the world fell into a never-ending debate if this technology is ethical to be applied on human. I would say most people agree on the potential benefits like improving disease resistant crops, removing the malaria carrying gene from mosquitos, saving endangered species and more. However, when it comes to human, this is where it gets tricky. Since every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA composition, it would be impossible to alter a grown person’s genome. So the only possible route is to alter the genome of a fertilized egg, even before it enters the embryonic stage. The word “designer babies” means babies with preselected traits by genetically editing the DNA sequence. The world was furious when Chinese scientist He Jiakui announced his team had been recruiting couples to create the CCR5 gene absent human embryo and a pair of twin girls were born in November 2018. By removing the CCR5 gene, the team had hoped to create babies resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera. He and his team was asked to suspend future research activities and he was even imprisoned for a while for breaking law and science ethics. Just a few days ago, it was discovered that the deletion of CCR5 gene may enhance the twins’ brain function in memory and cognition.
So, what’s happening? The technology is there but scientists are afraid to do anything. Why? The power of public criticism in the science community is too powerful, damaging even. Remember James Watson, the guy that discovered the structure of DNA. He was accused of racist and sexist comments and was stripped of all titles and positions in the science community. (Personally, I don’t agree with the accusations.) Incidents like this discourage researchers to explore new areas and controversial topics, simply because it might hurt their reputation and funding. I don’t know how the future for the genetic engineering industry goes, but new regulations (legal and ethical) need to be made for this fairly new field. Just like AI, genome-editing is experiencing some major social and ethical concerns.
How does it connect to our class?
Thanks for still reading. Hopefully I didn’t bore you but this is something I am super passionate about. Since we are talking about societal and ethical consideration of digital technology, I want to present you with another technology industry struggling at the edge of the blurred ethical lines. In addition, there are a lot of parallel between the AI and gene editing.
I am excited to see biotech companies/laboratories incorporating AI and machine learning into detecting gene function. As you may or may not know, a gene is composed of hundreds and thousands of DNA sequence and many genes overlap. Not to mention the presence of regulatory domains and other sections on the DNA. With over 3 billion basepairs in the human genome, it is difficult to process even one human sample, let alone an entire population. With the help of artificial intelligence and machine learning, maybe we can input massive genomic sequencing data and just let the AI find patterns in them. Let the unknown find the unknown.
Last but not least, biotech industry is a hot area for venture capitalists right now. One of the biggest biotech companies in Silicon Valley is Genentech, cofounded by venture capitalist Robert Swanson and biochemist Herbert Boyer. I learnt the story of Genentech from the documentary Something Ventured (it’s on Netflix, highly recommend). When Swanson recognized the opportunity lying in recombinant DNA technology, he contacted Herb Boyer, then professor at UC San Francisco, to found the company, even backed the company with his own money. Sequoia also backed a lot of startups in this field, for example, 23andMe (DNA sequencing) and GenEdit (CRISPR gene therapeutics).