Imagine selective evolution
By Noah Seeman, Vail Symposium Intern
In 2003 the scientific community completed perhaps the most important scientific project ever embarked upon. That was the human genome project. Researchers successfully sequenced 3 billion base pairs in our 23 chromosomes, discovering roughly 20,000 genes. Those 20,000 genes code for proteins which make a human a human.
The unlocking of genetic secrets has led to important questions about how we should best use this information. Genetic information is used to make genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) where genes from one species are inserted into the genome of another. A version of this happens every day in high schools across the country. Students take a gene from a jellyfish that codes for proteins that allow the jellyfish to produce light and insert it into E.coli bacteria. After several days of incubation the bacteria can then produce light. But this begs the question: If teenagers in high school can make bacteria glow, what can scientists in labs do with the human genome?
The answer is quite a bit. In the coming years, scientists are likely to find a way to significantly lengthen our lives and make them disease free. They could eliminate dangerous genes such as BRCA1 (a gene that, when normally functioning, suppresses tumors and when mutated can cause breast cancer) or prevent colorblindness.
But then where do we draw the line? If scientists can eliminate genes such as BRCA1, what is to say they will stop? Take, for instance, the idea of producing designer babies, where parents can select for blue eyes instead of brown, brown hair instead of blond, tallness over shortness, etc. It is this ethical line that we must establish as a human race. The biotechnology industry is in some desparate need for a limbo-like space where regulation prevents society’s malfunction, yet won’t impede on the important benefits such technologies could give the human race.
Human immortality has long been a subject of science fiction. A recent film, The Age of Adeline, suggested that humans could become immortal through having telomeres (regions of noncoding DNA that prevent the shortening of regions that do code for proteins), that never shorten.
While now the stuff of movies, such plot lines are drawing nearer to reality. Author, biotechnology expert and foreign affairs expert Jamie Metzl, who will speak for the Vail Symposium on February 9 at 5:30 pm at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards, takes a similar approach to bringing about important conversations about future technologies. His new book, “Eternal Sonata,” combines science and science fiction to produce novels that explore the hypothetical, immortal future of humanity and what its implications on society would be. Further, his experience in global affairs (he has advised the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) gives him a unique take on the implications of biotechnology in the future rivalries among sets of the population.
Biotechnology will have enormous implications on the future of the human race and of all species on earth. The insights given by Metzl are essential to understanding biotechnology and thus our future.