A genetic future that is at once both extremely promising and extremely dangerous is already starting to unfold, according to a futurist who spoke last week at Livermore’s Bankhead Theater.
That future is based upon our rapidly growing ability to modify the DNA genetic code that governs our biology, making it possible to alter the human race in fundamental ways, according to the futurist, Jamie Metzl.
Our goal may be to make future humans healthier, smarter and more capable, but the ability to modify genetic code also opens the door to unintended consequences like making future generations vulnerable to presently unknown diseases or environmental conditions.
It also raises the possibility of new competitions between nations, genetic arms races in which some nations try to dominate the world by breeding superior soldiers or scientists for geopolitical advantage.
Metzl’s talk was part of the Rae Dorough Speaker Series.
“We are entering an age where radical technology is going to change the world around us and the world within us in deep and fundamental ways,” he told the Bankhead audience.
“Being Homo sapiens was never going to be some terminal point in our evolutionary trajectory as a species. This is just a stopping point along the way.”
Metzl’s views on the topic are laid out in greater detail his recent book, “Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity.”
Metzl is a senior fellow on the Atlantic Council who has served with the National Security Council, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the State Department.
Prior to writing “Hacking Darwin,” he authored two books on the Cambodian genocide, one a history and the other a novel. He has written two genetics-oriented science fiction novels. He is an Ironman triathlon competitor and an ultra marathoner.
Early this year, he was appointed to a World Health Organization expert committee on developing standards for human genome editing.
His concern about the genetic revolution, he said last week, is based on the observation that medical science is already moving beyond relatively noncontroversial applications in healthcare and into human reproduction, where it has the potential to alter not only individuals but societies and the human race itself.
It’s a sign of how fast things are moving internationally that by next year, China plans to map the genomes of half of its newborn, a process called sequencing that is increasingly rapid and inexpensive.
Within a decade, similar records will exist for perhaps a quarter of the people on Earth.
FOUR DECADES OF IVF
In vitro fertilization has been taking place with increasing success and reliability for decades. By coincidence, Metzl noted, the first IVF baby, Louise Brown of Britain, turned 41 on the day of his Bankhead talk.
Even though it is time-consuming, expensive and uncomfortable for the prospective mother who experiences it, IVF has become reliable enough to account for about 1.5 percent of American births – more in some other countries, like Japan, where about 5 percent are IVF babies.
IVF gives otherwise infertile couples a chance to have children, and couples who want a boy or girl to try to choose gender. (There is no certainty that the implanted egg will remain viable.)
IVF can produce as many as 15 eggs which, after fertilization, can then be selected for implantation following tests for relatively simple genetic abnormalities and for sex.
Decades from now, it will be possible for a prospective parent to produce and fertilize thousands of eggs, Metzl said.
This need not be done by the controversial method of harvesting embryonic cells, which is objectionable in some cultures and religions.
Instead, scientists have learned how to convert ordinary human cells, like skin cells, into so-called pluripotent stem cells which in turn can be converted to other types of cells including eggs.
The process was developed by Japanese stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize as a result.
Research today is carried out primarily in the laboratory and with animals, but in coming years there will be human applications and a dramatic expansion of the power of IVF, Metzl believes.
This in turn will lead to major moral and ethical dilemmas as increasingly sophisticated tests make it possible not only to detect and fix simple genetic abnormalities but to undertake complex repairs and insert genes in hopes of establishing desirable traits.
Metzl likened the process to computer hacking; that is, to changing the code that gives a computer its instructions. “Biology is hackable. Biology is code, and we totally get that computer code is now malleable and our code is malleable.”
The hacking – the rewriting of the DNA code – will be done with gene editing techniques like the famous CRISPR, developed in part in Berkeley and constantly being refined in laboratories all over the world.
CHOOSING TRAITS IN OFFSPRING
As scientists develop better technology for manipulating genetic code, parents will increasingly be able to select traits that they would like their offspring to have.
To illustrate the kinds of reproductive choices that are coming, Metzl recently wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times in which he imagined a doctor in a 2045 fertility clinic advising a visitor.
“We can confidently make deletions, alterations and insertions (to your DNA),” the imaginary doctor says. The purpose will be “to alter the expression of a few genes where the potential benefits seem to outweigh the risks — like for increased resistance to some deadly viruses, greater ability to build and maintain muscle mass, or a lower risk of cancer, diabetes, familial Alzheimer’s, and coronary disease.
“Those are all part of our premium enhancement package.”
The reference to a “premium” package suggests a future in which parents will be faced with consumer style choices that vary with income and that affect the future lives of their children and their children’s children.
The wealthy are likely to have more options, and they will be making choices that influence future generations.
Metzl cited some of the characteristics that have been shown to be influenced if not outright determined by genetics: eye color, hair color, physical height, intelligence, even personality.
Will we still be human once we start altering our fundamental genetic code? Metzl presents the question as philosophical rather than scientific. He believes there are no absolute right or wrong answers.
He is convinced, however, that the issue should be addressed by a wide cross-section of humanity, not merely top down by leaders.
No less than the future nature of humans will be at stake, and there is no time to lose.
“This future is coming at us with an unbelievable velocity,” he said.
“This is a conversation about ethics, about what are the values that we want to weave into the decisions that we are collectively going to make in the coming years to determine how these Promethean technologies are going to be used, hopefully in ways that optimize the good stuff and minimize the bad stuff.”