Futurist Jamie Metzl sees a day coming when genetic science will improve babies, extend lifespan and offer bad actors sinister weapons.
A genetic revolution is coming, asserts futurist Jamie Metzl, and he describes a thrilling and terrifying future. The genetic age could free humanity from genetic diseases and allow people to adapt to environmental collapse or live on other planets. Metzl writes for a lay audience and offers easy-to-understand sketches of significant technologies. His primary question: What will it mean to be human?
For billions of years, random genetic mutations have driven the evolutionary process. Recent advances in genetic knowledge and technology enable scientists to treat the genome – the complete human genetic code – as if it were a software code they can read, edit and, eventually, write.
We are coming to realize our biology is yet another system of information technology.Jamie Metzl
Genetic science could eradicate genetic diseases, reverse genetically linked aging processes, or engineer people who can live amid the deadly radiation of space. But the genetic revolution holds potential dangers. Humanity may engineer babies for favored traits. Or rogue states could engineer virulent pathogens for warfare or terror attacks. Society must address the ethical, religious and political ramifications of the genetic age.
In the 19th century, Charles Darwin theorized that random mutations drove evolution. Some mutations involved new traits that proved to be advantageous in the competitive struggle for survival. An organism possessing helpful mutations was more likely to survive long enough to pass that trait to descendants. The mutation would spread throughout the species – thus, the species evolved. Darwin termed this “natural selection.”
If your ancestors survived and procreated, you are here. If not, you are not.Jamie Metzl
The molecule DNA is the mechanism of heredity. DNA comprises sequences, or genes, that carry encoded instructions for building a new organism.
Through IVF and preimplantation genetic testing (PGT), humankind gained unprecedented control over the genetic makeup of its offspring. In the IVF process, doctors remove up to 15 eggs from the prospective mother, and fertilize them with the father’s – or donor’s – sperm to create embryos to implant in the mother’s womb. Using PGT, doctors screen preimplanted embryos and provide parents with information on gender and genetic mutations that can lead to diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease and muscular dystrophy.
The genetics revolution will unlock one of the greatest opportunities for advancing human health and well-being in the history of our species.Jamie Metzl
New discoveries in gene-editing techniques could allow doctors and parents to directly modify an embryo’s genetic code. With the promising editing technique, CRISPR-Cas9, scientists can modify DNA easily, cheaply and precisely. Using Cas9 enzymes, scientists can remove or replace individual genes or adjust how the genes express.
The Genetic Revolution
Researchers will sequence the genomes of up to two billion people. Eventually, patients’ genome sequences will become part of medical records. This data will enable medicine to harness AI to analyze how a drug or treatment works on people with a genetic makeup and actuarial profile similar to yours.
Gene editing is not yet sufficiently precise to practice safely on human beings. But the potential exists to modify the genome by removing genes, turning off a gene’s expression or inserting new genes.
Researchers seek the genetic mechanisms of aging so they can modify them. Evolution’s prerogative is only that creatures live long enough to reproduce. Some species of jellyfish, for example, are immortal. One Icelandic quahog clam lived 507 years, and died only when researchers accidentally killed it while trying to measure its age.
The naked mole rat can live up to 31 years. They enjoy lifelong health, don’t get cancer, and their bodies repair genetic damage. Researchers hypothesize that the naked mole rat produces a protein that polices the rest of its system, removing defective proteins before they cause harm.
Senescent cells stop dividing as an organism ages and remain in the body, damaging tissue and spurring inflammation. Reducing the number of senescent cells may turn back the body’s clock. When researchers removed senescent cells from mice, the rodents regrew thinning hair, regained muscle strength and lived 25% longer than control mice lived.
Changes in a person’s genome would pass on to his or her descendants. Some claim that people don’t have the right to make decisions about the genetics of future generations. Ethicist Julian Savulescu, however, argues that parents have a moral imperative to create children with the best genetic chance at a good life.
Parents afraid of passing…deadly genetic diseases to their future children will not sit by idly while their future children face potential genetic death sentences.Jamie Metzl
Some parents might choose modifications for aesthetic reasons or to give their child a competitive edge. A majority might pick the same favored traits, which would undermine the genetic diversity that enables humanity to survive changing environments.
Unequal access to technologies may result because many innovations are expensive at first and only become more accessible later. If the wealthy enhance their children first, enhanced people could become a dominant class who might restrict future enhancements to protect their status.
To deal with potential future inequality, people must address present inequality in living standards, lifelong health and access to medical technology.
People have differing opinions about humankind tweaking biology. This could lead to incompatible legal and regulatory environments. Humanity needs a global decision-making structure that facilitates responsible research while setting and enforcing limits and taking steps to prevent rogue activities.
Metzl also writes provocative futurist fiction, and brings a novelist’s prose and high sense of drama to science that would be exciting even in its driest form. Metzl’s voice produces a thrilling, nonstop read. Granted, he underscores the most sensational aspects of genetic science, and his final plea for nationwide cooperation seems, in the face of his sophistication and understanding of humankind’s innate selfishness and desperation for any advantage, a hilariously naive notion.
Jamie Metzl also wrote Eternal Sonata; Genesis Code; and The Depths of the Sea.