The present author has long predicted that genetic engineering will revolutionize the 21st century to the same degree that computer engineering revolutionized the 20th. That prediction is looking more true every day.
While we’re still scrambling, as a species, to adjust to the secondary effects of the explosion of information technology in recent decades, we’re coming up on an even more interesting period in human history: The capacity to hack the building blocks of life itself. We’re well past the threshold of pondering the what-ifs of genetic engineering; we’re into the stage where we’re doing stuff that has only been proposed in the wildest sci-fi novels. We don’t have to ask “what if?” much longer, because we’re going to find out very fast – whether we’re ready or not.
CRISPR stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.” To cut through the techno-babble, it’s a new way of editing genes. It’s a cheaper, faster, and has the ability to modify the DNA of any life form desired. Instead of engineering a single-purpose DNA edit – which is the old way – CRISPR can be used to repeatedly edit a gene using RNA, splicing in whatever sequences you want. In a nutshell, CRISPR methods are the “programming language” of genetics, so to speak.
Applications of the technology have already dramatically changed the bio-engineering field. Since its early mention in research papers in 2014, CRISPR gene-editing has already been used to engineer malaria-fighting mosquitoes, to treat a Chinese patient’s lung cancer, to treat muscular dystrophy in mice, and to breed more muscular livestock. And that’s just scratching the surface. Research is underway to discover treatments, if not outright cures, for anything from cancer to AIDS using CRISPR gene-hacking.
More than one scientific journalist has already pointed out that not only is it possible to use CRISPR technology to create genetically modified humans, it’s almost trivial. This brings us hard up against a wall of ethical concerns, to say the least. We could, in short, be witnessing the beginning of the end of many diseases. In the most optimistic views, we could be within grasp of creating the perfect human being. But what really is perfect, and how willing are we to strive towards a result? At least one tech enthusiast, Bruce Bowden, has created the Human Code Foundation to address just those concerns.
Genetically Modified Organisms are already one field making a daily impact on our news headlines. The irrational reactions of fear on the part of the general public is a good bellwether for how genetic engineering is going to go over in general. Spoilers: Like a lead balloon, at least in the United States.
As always, we should point out that CRISPR, and any genetic engineering method we hatch up, doesn’t enable us to do anything new, just do what we did before faster. Just as with computing, where you could argue that you could calculate 100 digits of Pi using only a line of people all counting on their fingers, we’ve already been doing genetic engineering for thousands of years. It’s called “breeding.”
Prenatal testing for genetic diseases is already used to screen pregnancies. Everything from grapefruit to German Shepherds is already the product of mankind’s selective breeding programs. Before we get to the “designer babies” stage, we should remember that for all of history we’ve even been collectively trying to breed the best babies we can. Who among us, when starting a family, will not put at least some thought into breeding good stock when selecting a mate? If we’re not ashamed to say we want a smart, good-looking, successful spouse with whom to raise our children, we have no business crying foul when somebody proposes a shortcut.
This video is awesome at summing up our points:
Readers might now be wondering: How does this affect me, since I work in computer technology? Well, in the first place, information technology advances made modern genetic engineering possible, so hooray for you. In the second place, the coming genetic science boom is an excellent opportunity for the tech community to aim a few applications at the bio-engineering market. The “Internet of Things” market – just drop by your local CES to catch the latest developments – has a huge presence in the agriculture field, since ambient smart technology gadgets go great with livestock pens and greenhouses.
There’s plenty of new opportunities springing up. And one big question is coming: Who will be the Google or Microsoft of genetic engineering? If you said “Monsanto,” you may be right – or Monsanto may turn out to be the Sun Microsystems of genetic engineering.