Are humans playing god? An overview of the genetic engineering industry

Welcome to my expertise 😉

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”.

It’s a bit early to ask but would you consider 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).

11 thoughts on “Are humans playing god? An overview of the genetic engineering industry

  1. Nice in-depth post, and a clear explanation of CRISPR as well.

    To the extent that humans are ‘playing God’ is always interesting to debate. On the one hand, we’ve always been working to artificially change our environment–from cross breeding crops to central heating and cooling. But that being said, I think there is a line to be drawn in bioethics–we shouldn’t have a free for all. However, the problem is that while most will agree there need to be some regulations and ethical restrictions, reasonable people will disagree on what should be allowed. That’s fine in principle, but a problem might arise with gene editing–especially in human reproduction. Parents may feel pressured to resort to the lowest common denominator so to speak in ‘editing’ their potential child–even if they don’t necessarily want to–to give their kids the best opportunities for success, just as they seek the best school districts.

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  2. Nice post. I can tell that you know a lot and are very passionate about this topic! It is certainly a hot topic of debate in scientific communites and I thought you made a good connection back to our class. Talking about gene editing is certainly an important discussion – the science is undeniably very cool and can have positive effects (like potentially limiting genetic diseases), but like AI, there is potential for some people to take it too far. As Charlie discussed in his comment, the important thing will be deciding exactly where that line is drawn. When it comes to ‘designer babies’, one question I always have in my mind is asking how the technology might affect socioeconomic inequality. If wealthy families have the opportunity to pay to edit the genes of their babies, won’t poorer families’ babies inherently be left at a disadvantage? So many interesting and important questions can come from this topic!

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  3. Great post, Melanie! I remember talking about this in biology classes in high school and even in college. And I remember my stance always being that if it could improve the individual’s life, then make that change. But you’ve raised a great point: who’s to say what improvement means? Actually being in Boston adds a new twist to this post as well due to its many esteemed hospitals and biomedical engineering firms here. What I found most interesting was the fact that the tech is ready but has not been due to fear of public criticism. I can only guess that this mentality spans beyond this specific field. Hopefully, we can discuss your blog post in class tomorrow, as it pairs perfectly with our question of ethics and responsibility. Thank you for this!

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  4. Very interesting post. I have never really known about the genetic engineering industry, but you explained the topic very well! Like you mentioned, there are many ethical concerns surrounding this issue including the extend to which ‘babies’ are modified. I agree with Patrick that if this becomes something in the future, then it will increase the gap between the wealthy and the poor. I hope scientists focus more on genetically modifying genes is ‘existing’ humans to potential cure genetic diseases. Very curious to see what road(s) this industry goes down in the coming years. Thank you for sharing!

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  5. this is such an interesting topic, I have heard about this a few times but never really quiet understood how it was possible. The whole idea of scientists being able to predetermine certain traits for babies that have yet to enter the embryonic stage is crazy, and seems like something out of a sci-fi movie. I wonder what this means for the future, especially since most scientists are being discouraged to further explore the possibilities of this technology because of the legal problems people have run into in the past. I personally feel like being able to “design” (to a certain extent) a baby before it is born is completely unnatural and is not something science should tamper with, but if we could weed out the possibility of contracting life-threatening illnesses, it could be amazing for the future population.

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  6. Love to read on something you are so passionate about! I love your point of bio information being “open-source” just like computer science. I was not aware how feasible this technology is today, definitely should be pushed ahead in terms of ethical discussion! I actually know someone who had the DNA of their baby altered in order to remove hereditary diseases that were common in his family. I do not believe this application is unethical, but may lead to a slippery slope? Cannot wait to discuss in class!

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  7. Really like your post! I can feel your passion when you are talking about biotech-related topics! The incident at China was a hot topic and it’s controversial since it might potentially damage other genes that takes time for us to see the differences. And definitely it is an ethical issue: whether we really have the legitimacy or even the right to alter a gene for others. It is not a small change but ultimately it is a transformation that will influence the entire human population. Like any other major changes we underwent in the past, there were both negative and positive aspects of it. Very interesting topic, I will check out the documentary that you recommend to gain more perspectives.

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  8. Such an interesting topic. As I began reading I immediately had one huge concern. Aside from the inequality that may arise due to the wealthy being able to afford such gene-editing and create their desired “designer baby”, we know that as technology progresses and scales that things become more affordable. I am curious to see what will come of the future if this technology became accessible to everyone in the general population. Ultimately, decades or even centuries down the line, what if reproduction of such designer babies leads to a ‘superior race’ with distinguished qualities. In other words, with time, if people are able to choose exactly how they want their baby to look and act, then won’t they choose those qualities that are most likely to survive as this is a basic human instinct. In the end, won’t everyone look and act the same exact way and what problems would arise in such a society?

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  9. Super cool idea. I happen to be doing a paper on the China’s former One Child Policy. The problem is very severe. China’s population will start to decline in 2020, and slide even further in the future. The younger generation will struggle to support the retiring baby boomer generation. In my paper, I suggested large scale automation and a better educated young generation could close the productivity gap. However, that hasn’t worked entirely well for Japan. GM babies could be a potential solution, as China leads in testing, and could reach new frontier faster than any country. The government also has an direct influence on child birth, so a far-fetched policy could be implemented in less than a year. Wonder how countries will utilize GM babies, as this could tip the long term balance of power of nations and long standing societal hierarchies.

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  10. Really cool post! My mom was an embryologist so she saw first hand the controversy of people wanting “designer babies”. Now with this new testing, genetically modified babies could become a “normal” part of life as we delve further into tech!

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  11. You do a great job describing a complicated topic both scientifically and ethically. There’s been concern about “designer babies” for decades now, but I’m guessing when they actually arrive– if they ever do– it will be so gradual that we won’t realize it before it’s done.

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