Anywhere you look in the modern world, you’ll see humans translating science fiction into science fact. We make predictions about a far off future, and then our curiosity drives us to make it reality—whether we like it or not.
With new technologies in genetic engineering led by the precision gene editing tool CRISPR/Cas9, we will once again push our species to a new frontier—only this time, we may fundamentally transform what it means to be human.
Jamie Metzl, author of Genesis Origins and chief strategy officer at ORIG3N, laid down the future of genetic engineering during his talk this week at Exponential Medicine, and showed how it will change the rules of human evolution.
For thousands of years, Metzl says, we’ve been a relatively stable species, subject to the natural world’s slow evolutionary rules. But this is all about to change.
“We are now at the beginning of an evolutionary phase guided by a different set of rules of self-evolution, driven by new technologies,” Metzl said.
Metzl explains it like this. If an infant from a thousand years ago were transported into today’s world and raised by a typical family, the child would be pretty similar to a kid born in 2015. But reach a thousand years into the future and bring an infant into today’s world—and comparatively, the future child would be superhuman.
Metzl splits the oncoming transformation of the human species into three phases in human genetic engineering.
Phase One: Embryo Selection
In-vitro fertilization (IVF) reinvented treatment for women with common forms of infertility. Now, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) enables disease detection in an embryo as young as five days. Eventually, we’ll be able to identify polygenic traits, mendelian traits, do full genomic analyses, and select embryos for implantation based on what we find.
At first, we’ll select against genetic diseases. But that may lead to selection of other traits too.
“We're going to understand not just which child is a carrier for Huntington's disease, but we're going to be able to know everything that is knowable through the genome,” says Metzl.
Stephen Hsu, vice president of research and professor of theoretical physics at Michigan State University, for example, believes that superintelligent humans are coming, and that in roughly ten years we’ll be able to predict an individual’s IQ from a cell.
Phase Two: Break the Logjam of Female Egg Production
Unlike the average male ejaculation, which contains hundreds of millions of sperm, the average egg count is fifteen when a woman has her eggs extracted for IVF.
“But imagine if we could break the logjam of human female mammalian egg production. We can already do that in mice using stem cells,” says Metzl.
By taking stem cells in mice, turning them into egg cells, and then turning those egg cells into actual eggs, eggs can become a nearly unlimited resource. Mix this with the ability to perform a genomic analysis on each egg, and what you get is vastly increased selectivity with embryos.
Phase Three: Precision Gene Editing
Beyond merely selecting from a range of traits present in embryos, we’ll eventually be able to add new DNA. Gene editing technologies are now allowing researchers to make precise cuts in the genome and even replace genes altogether.
Neither our knowledge of the genome nor existing gene editing tools are perfect, says Metzl, but the pressure to continue expanding our capabilities is fierce.
And though most interest in gene editing is for preventing life-altering diseases in newborns, Metzl believes the process of eliminating these diseases will later open the door to many additional types of genetic manipulation.
This is attracting a lot of attention, and for good reason.
Recent headlines like “IVF, a Lifestyle Choice or Birth Right?” and “Would You Edit Your Unborn Child’s Genes So They Were Successful?” would have us question the moral implications of genetic manipulation. And earlier this year, news that Chinese scientists had recently attempted to genetically modify human embryos using CRISPR kicked up considerable controversy in the scientific community.
We do not know exactly what the future of human genetic engineering will look like, but Metzl believes this conversation will be similar to the newborn vaccination debate. Some parents will opt in, others will opt out—and there will be consequences on both ends of the spectrum.
“Because the science is moving forward more quickly than our consciousness,” Metzl wrote last year, “it is critical that we begin a national and global conversation on the ethical and national security implications of the genetics revolution and start thinking about what a preliminary global regulatory framework that both supports important research and prevents the worst abuses might look like.”
Metzl ended his talk with a call-to-action, urging the scientific and medical communities to open up the conversation to everyone—as it will impact us all.
“This needs to be a communal, societal, and species wide conversation about our future,” Metzl said.
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