Your Questions Answered, Part 2: General Biotechnology

Hi, everyone! Today I have Part 2 of a genetics/biotechnology/general life science post for you. You can check out Part 1 here. Again, thanks to H. Halverstadt for asking these fantastic questions! Let’s get right to it:

How do you think CRISPR and the gene drive will change the future of genetic engineering?

I am of the opinion that CRISPR is one of the most revolutionary advances in biotechnology of our time. The precision with which genes can be edited due to the specificity of the system is just incredible. I would certainly predict that its popularity (with scientists, not necessarily with the general public, especially the uninformed) will soar in the future, although at least for a short time, “conventional” genetic engineering will still be practiced. But given public outcry about GMOs (even if not warranted—a topic for another time), the ability to improve an organism without bringing in genes from another organism could be more popular and, indeed, simply easier, with fewer steps required.

The gene drive is more specific; I think it has a lot fewer potential applications than CRISPR. Whereas CRISPR can be used with most any current genetic engineering application, I really can’t think of an application for the gene drive that is really different from its current uses, combating insect-vector diseases and pesticide/herbicide resistance. They might try to tackle antibiotic resistance with it next, but I don’t think it will have broad-based applications after that. I would predict that CRISPR will be by far the more influential technique in future.

What gradual, irreversible changes to the human genome might happen?

My best idea is that, according to the principles of natural selection, any beneficial-to-survival changes made to a majority of people by genetic engineering (and propagated through the germ line) could eventually become fixed in the population. I’m going to stop there, since I don’t have quite the human or population genetics knowledge to go on.

Can you see cells from certain people being in high demand? What kind of people?

This is a very interesting question. First, instead of cells, I think we’d be talking about DNA sequences; why bother taking the whole cell if you can get just the DNA you want? I also assume here that the question is asking about acquiring copies of someone else’s DNA for non-gene-therapy genetic enhancement. In this case, I expect that genes from athletic people (there are some known genes related to athleticism—I know of one specific case in which a certain allele of one gene is associated with endurance running) and intelligent people (if such genes could be identified—to my knowledge there are none currently) might be popular for making “designer babies” and so forth.

What laws do you think might be passed to regulate genetic engineering?

I’m not as knowledgeable about the legal side of biotech, but currently, I know labeling laws for GMO foods are a big deal. A quick search revealed to me that GMOs are put through testing processes by a few federal agencies before being put on the market to determine their safety. It’s conceivable that a law prohibiting non-gene-therapy engineering of humans could be passed, although presumably not in the kind of society most sci-fi/dystopian writers who read this will be interested in. Besides that, I apologize, but I can’t come up with much.

Is inter-species gene editing something that is possible for humans?

Technically, yes. Ethically, it’s complicated. Personally, I don’t see this as acceptable, but I’m sure some bioethicist out there could make the case that improving human welfare by adding nonhuman genes would be worth the (hypothetical) cost in our humanity.  (A technical note: this seems to me to be less gene editing, and more transgenic expression. Gene editing is messing with a gene that’s already there; transgenics are organisms containing genes from other species.)

Do you see genetic engineering ever being something smart high school students can do in their kitchen?

Absolutely. In fact, this kind of thing is happening today among a DIY biologist or “biohacker” movement that believes science shouldn’t be for academia alone. So far, though, they’re not that scary; national and worldwide organizations like DIY Bio (https://diybio.org/) have been good about organizing events regarding safety and bioethics. It’s not being done to humans, or even vertebrate animals as far as I can tell; there are still too many ethical issues in that area. But yes, as long as you can afford the reagents and equipment, you can genetically engineer a plant or a (nonpathogenic) microbe. I believe even CRISPR is currently accessible for DIY biologists (though it costs about $500—I’m sure the price will go down as it becomes an established part of biotech).

If inter-species gene editing is possible for humans, how about humans and a different category of animals, like birds? 

Again, absolutely; you could put a plant gene in a human cell if you wanted, or vice versa. And I’ve read about glow-in-the-dark animals being created by expressing a jellyfish gene.

Please comment on the feasibility of these fantastical forms of genetic engineering. Winged humans, mermaids, elves, centaurs, giants, dwarves, humans able to breathe lower oxygen air. Do you think any other traits would bleed through? (Like for example, if winged humans had eagle genes, would they have other eagle traits as well?)

First, let me say that “dwarves” already exist; we know them as “midgets.” There are a variety fo forms of dwarfism, some dominant, some recessive, but none require genetic engineering. By “elves” I assume you mean basically humans with pointed ears. I expect this would most easily be done surgically.

As for “giants,” height is an extremely complex trait. It is quantitative, meaning that it follows a bell-curve distribution in the population, and there are currently thought to be about 700 genes that influence it. So engineering really tall people could be possible, but I suspect it would be inefficient in the incredible amount of effort it would take. Here is my source (http://time.com/4655634/genetics-height-tall-short/) for that, and I recommend you look up more detailed information on that trait if it’s something you’re interested in using in your story. I just don’t know enough about it to be of much help.

The others would be difficult, but theoretically doable in the far future given a masterful understanding of cellular physiology and probably lots of trial and error. For the humans with animal parts (winged, merpeople, centaurs), geneticists would need an almost perfectly complete understanding of development, which, once again, is incredibly complicated and controlled by many, many genes. It is possible that cells could be induced (“programmed”) to differentiate in such a way as to generate animal limbs on a human body, or to replace human limbs with animal ones, but this would also likely require detailed knowledge of the role of epigenetics in development, and complete knowledge of both human and animal development, which would simply take a very long time to achieve. And even then, it’s completely possible that scientists assembling and applying all this knowledge could miss something essential and make some terrible mistakes. Not to mention all the trial and error—what if a limb grew in the wrong place? etc. So, possible, but not probable to begin with, and would need to be masterfully executed.

The “bleeding through” of other traits mentioned in this question is, I would say, almost certainly not realistic. Giving someone wings will not automatically give them, say, sharp eyesight; that would be controlled by other genes (as well as environmental factors). It makes for interesting fiction, but as far as I know, there is no scientific basis for it.

As for the last one on the list, the pertinent process is cellular respiration. You would need to somehow increase the efficiency of this (again) complex process, which is only 39% efficient at capturing the energy in glucose into ATP (look up the basics of the process). I will say tentatively that this could be one of the more feasible things on this list, if only because cellular respiration is already fairly well understood (i.e. it’s not one of the great mysteries of our time) and preliminary studies could be carried out with bacterial or yeast cultures before progressing to human and mouse cultures, mouse trials, and finally human trials.

Here, to make a long answer longer, I want to make a general note about the approval process for human studies. I feel that the “evil scientist does unethical experiments on humans” trope is both overused and inaccurate. Every university, as far as I know, has an Institutional Review Board (IRB) that convenes solely for the purpose of evaluating and approving human-subject studies. This applies not only to clinical trials, but to interviews and surveys in psychology studies, and even to education studies that take class data and use it for research. Even if there is no perceptible risk at all, researchers are absolutely required to provide the subjects with knowledge about risks, so that they can be informed when they sign the form they must sign (even for a harmless survey!). This applies very much more to genetic engineering and so forth. Under this system, it’s very difficult to conduct an unethical study regarding human subjects, and unless social mores shifted in the future, it’s conceivable that the system will stay like this, making it difficult for any of these ideas to get off the ground, due to possible unforeseen consequences of the alterations.

If yes for the above, would reversal be possible, not just for the offspring but for the person in question? For example, if a winged human wanted to be a regular human again, would she be able to be one after extensive surgery and gene therapy?

I would say yes, although it’s completely a guess since I’m not a medical expert. The gene therapy might not even be necessary; though the genes might still be in the rest of her body, if they weren’t being expressed, she could be a “normal” human with nonhuman DNA, as long as her wings were removed. My bet is that the removal could be done with a surgical procedure (albeit complicated, probably, to remove the whole wing skeletal structure).

 

 

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