Genetic Selection

It seems to me….

With the advent of genetic engineering, the time required for the evolution of new species may literally collapse.” ~ Dee Hock[1].

Evolutionary change has always been a long slow process extending over millennia but that is about to change due to the development of new, efficient, and relatively easy-to-use genetic modification techniques such as CRISPR. “Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” known by its acronym, CRISPR, is a new gene-splicing technique and one of the most important developments in recent years. It already has opened new methods to render viruses inactive, regulate cell activity, create disease resistant crops, and even engineer yeast to produce ethanol that can fuel our cars; it also has provided the ability to accurately and efficiently “edit” the human genome in both embryos and adults.

Most medical procedures still remain overly intrusive and considerable work remains to understand physiological dependencies – but that is about to change. Scientists created the first full full map of the human genome in 2003; continuing reductions in the cost of genetic analysis are key to many significant advances. Once there is an available genetic database for about 100,000 individuals, big data analytics could examine large amounts of data to uncover hidden patterns, correlations, and other insights enabling more accurate diagnosis and treatment. Of course, in addition to genomes, full digital availability of all patient physiological and psychological records, treatments, and results also would be necessary which most likely would encounter opposition from both doctors and patients even if fully anonymized.

When the cost for full genetic sequencing declines to less than $200, it probably will be required for all newborns. The cost for required selective gene testing is currently around $80 but mandatory tests differ from state to state so the price-differential should be acceptable to insurance companies.

As millions and then billions of people have their genomes sequenced as part of standard health care and these people’s genomes are compared to their life experience, scientists will deploy big data analytics to uncover how certain genetic and epigenetic patterns increase the probabilities of various outcomes[2].

As significant an advancement as this is, it still represents only an initial step toward full understanding of this process. Gene expression is the process by which information from a gene is used in the synthesis of a functional gene product. These products are often proteins, but in non-protein coding genes such as transfer RNA (tRNA) or small nuclear RNA (snRNA) genes, the product is a functional RNA. Full understanding will require substantial additional research.

There is not yet any absolute answer to the nature-nurture debate and still impossible to precisely determine what percentage of our traits are based on our genes. Scientists have estimated based on twin studies, however, that the range is somewhere between 50-80 percent. Some traits are genetically simple, perhaps only influenced by one or more genes. Others, such as height and intelligence, are more complex and influenced by thousands.

Where spectrum preimplantation genetic screening (PGS) assessment for trait selection is permitted, parents will be informed of the probabilities of likely outcomes from among their pre-implanted embryos when deciding which of them to implant. Some embryos will be identified as having a greater than normal expectation of being superior at math, an exceptionally fast runner, or a super-empathic child. The more we know of genomics, the more accurate these predictions will become.

The possibility of assisted reproduction will admittedly alarm some people. Many individuals, groups, and countries may choose to opt out for very legitimate reasons. But competition within and between countries will drive the adoption of embryo selection inexorably forward. Once it is considered safe, parents will not want their children to be left behind as IQ levels across the population increase or the average height becomes taller due to embryo selection. Countries will fear losing competitiveness if they opt out while other states opt in.

But no matter what is or is not done, the human species has rounded a corner in our evolutionary process. Embryo selection is only the beginning of this transformation. Our genetically altered future has already begun.

Embryo selection, in connection with in-vitro fertilization (IVF), has been available since 1978. Starting in the 1990s, doctors began using PGS to extract cells from early-stage embryos and screen them for simple genetic diseases. We now have the basic ability to eliminate many genetic diseases, extend healthy lifespans, and enhance people’s overall well-being; an ability that will be wide-spread and viable within the next twenty-five years.

Gene transfer can be targeted to somatic (body) or germ (egg and sperm) cells. In somatic gene transfer the recipient’s genome is changed but the change is not passed on to the next generation. With germline gene transfer, the parents’ egg or sperm cells are changed so as to pass on any changes to their offspring.

At present, over a thousand such diseases, including cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, Tay-Sachs, sickle-cell anemia, and Duchenne muscular dystrophy can be screened during PGS and the list is constantly growing. With this information, parents using IVF and PGS can select embryos not carrying those diseases if they so choose. Some jurisdictions, including the U.S., Mexico, Italy, and Thailand, additionally permit parents to select the gender of their future children.

The ability to prevent genetic disease will catalyze the adoption of embryo screening across the population but use of the technology will not end there. When cells taken from early-stage embryos are fully sequenced during PGS, they will provide information about all genetically influenced traits, not just those related to disease.

Most biomedical interventions, whether successful or not, have attempted to restore something perceived to be deficient, such as vision, hearing, or mobility but have tended to be relatively modest and incremental. Now, with scientific developments in areas such as biotechnology, information technology, and nanotechnology, humanity may have reached that point where enhancement revolution is prompted by ongoing efforts to aid people with disabilities and heal the sick. Science is making rapid progress in new restorative and therapeutic technologies that could, in theory, have implications for human enhancement[3].

While currently primarily still only an area of research, the basic foundation is being developed eventually leading to widespread use. Once science provides the means to start editing the code of life, where does it stop? There are ways to make cells virus-resistant, prion-resistant, cancer-resistant. While not currently possible, it soon will be able to create designer babies with predetermined eye color, intelligence, and physical traits. Our cells do not make all the essential amino acids that are required to make our own proteins but it should be possible to put all the metabolic pathways to make those missing essential amino acids into a human cell.

While modifications of the human genome might initially be strongly opposed, especially by religious conservatives, it most likely already is occurring in more centrally-controlled illiberal nations such as China. Any opposition will necessarily acquiesce providing limited acceptance for medical applications for otherwise untreatable heritable diseases.

As genetic analysis becomes common and additional cause/effect relationships known, treatments will be developed to cure and prevent a rapidly lengthening list of maladies. Though there also is significant philosophical, ethical, and religious opposition to so-called transhumanism, advocates predict that instead of leaving a person’s physical well-being to the vagaries of nature, science will allow us to take control of our species’ development, making ourselves and future generations stronger, smarter, healthier, and happier but obviously not without controversy. Any attempt to ban such research is ultimately unenforceable, impractical, and will only serve to delay general availability.

In July 2017, researchers at the Oregon Health and Sciences University used CRISPR, to “delete” a mutation linked to heart conditions from a human embryo. The mutation could have caused heart disease and heart failure so the technology was used to prevent an inherited disease from spreading to future generations. The fact is that this is not something that might happen sometime in the future, human genes are already being edited.

It will become increasingly difficult to differentiate between treatment critical to saving a life and what is merely beneficial to the quality of life. Given the current prevalence of obesity, would genetic elimination of any tendency toward endomorphism be acceptable? Would genetic reduction of drug or alcohol dependence tendencies be permitted?

An Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA held in February 1975 at a conference center at Asilomar State Beach discussed potential biohazards and regulation of biotechnology. This technology entails the joining of DNA from different species and the subsequent insertion of the hybrid DNA into a host cell. Principles guiding the recommendations for how to conduct experiments using this technology safely were established at the conference.

Many researches express concern about insertion of non-human DNA but it would be considered extremely significant if a gene was found that e.g., could allow regeneration of lost limbs. The Caudata, an order of tailed amphibians including salamanders and newts, is possibly the most adept vertebrate group at regeneration given their capability of regenerating limbs, tails, jaws, eyes and a variety of internal structures. If a gene was found that could provide this ability to humans without negative side effects, insertion probably would encounter only minor objection.

Synthetic biologists are researching methods to construct novel organisms from scratch for an array of purposes in medicine, energy, agriculture, and other fields. One such project, the Human Genome Project-write (or GP-write, as the project is known), aims to use these same tools to build a much more familiar organism: a human cell, complete with all the DNA required to produce more human cells. Mastery of this technique could wipe out diseases and bring about other applications we can’t yet imagine. It would be the ultimate engineering blueprint for life.

At some point, the line is crossed and necessary treatment leads to desirable characteristics. Parental (and possibly the state) insistence will result in general acceptance of so-called “designer babies” with highly desired attributes: intelligence, athleticism, appearance…. Totally synthetic babies will come in the future when the timing is right, the tools are available, the technology is affordable and sufficiently reliable. Someone somewhere will pioneer that particular project and there isn’t any way to prevent it.

There isn’t any way to predict what a world devoid of physical, mental, or genetic defects would be like – but the door is now open to finding out. We now have the ability to control not only our own evolutionary future but also that of every living creature on the planet.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Dee Ward Hock is the founder and former CEO of the Visa credit card association.

[2] Metzi, Jamie. By The Year 2040, Embryo Selection Could Replace Sex As The Way Most Of Us Make Babies, Kurzweil.AI.net, http://www.kurzweilai.net/by-the-year-2040-embryo-selection-could-replace-sex-as-the-way-most-of-us-make-babies?utm_source=KurzweilAI+Weekly+Newsletter&utm_campaign=d4cc589973-UA-946742-1&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_147a5a48c1-d4cc589973-282211389, 9 May 2016.

[3] Masci, David. Human Enhancement, Pew Research Center, http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/07/26/human-enhancement-the-scientific-and-ethical-dimensions-of-striving-for-perfection/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=9dca022fe6-_Weekly_July_28_20167_28_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-9dca022fe6-400092341, 26 July 2016.

About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
This entry was posted in Amphibians, Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA, Asilomar State Beach, biological evolution, Caudata, China, CRISPR, Cystic Fibrosis, Deoxyribonucleic Acid, Disease, DNA, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, Embryo, Epigenetic, Evolution, Evolution, Fertilization, Gene Therapy, Gene Transfer, Genes, Genetic Analysis, Genetic Sequencing, Genetics, Genomes, Genomics, germ, Health, Huntington’s Disease, In Vitro, In-Vitro Fertilization, Intelligence, Italy, IVF, medical, Mexico, newts, Oregon Health and Sciences University, Physiology, Psychology, Religion, Ribonucleic Acid, RNA, Salamanders, Science, Sex, Sex, Sickle-Cell Anemia, snRNA, Somatic, Sperm, Tay-Sachs, Thailand, tRNA and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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