Manifest Destiny in the New Frontier

September 24, 2015 § 1 Comment

Americans have always been a curious lot.  We have felt this desire to “boldly go where no man has gone before” from the time of the late 19th century when the idea of “Manifest Destiny” was coined, an idea reflecting our belief that we were destined to explore and colonize the new realm of the wild west, to the mid-20th century when we declared space as the “final frontier” and proceeded to conquer and explore that frontier to the best of our abilities, becoming the first nation to put its citizens on the moon.  However, contrary to our grandparents’ belief, space was not the “final frontier,” but rather another frontier still awaits us, ready for exploration and new discovery; a frontier not around us, but inside of us: our own genes.

We have come a long way from simple Mendelian Genetics and are now at the point where we can manipulate DNA in many different ways: inducing somatic cells to re-instate their undifferentiated form creating induced pluripotent stem cells, splicing genes of one organism into another creating chimeras, implanting favorable genes into crops with genetic engineering technology, and much more.  And even after all of this discovery, there is still so much we have yet to determine, so much unchartered territory left to explore.  Within our genes lie the secrets of our personality and the template for our appearance; but our genes also hold our genetic diseases and predispositions, oncogenes that can induce the formation of tumors and mutations that can lead to fatal diseases like Huntington’s Disease.  Within our genes lies the code that makes us who we are in every positive and negative way, serving as the unchanging template that ultimately steers our life.  But what if we could change this template? What if we no longer were forced to serve as slaves to our genes but rather could manipulate them for the better?

Human genetic manipulation is a frontier many have been afraid to touch for years due to a host of ethical issues. However, developments have still occurred.  Now, the technology is available for the groundbreaking research to occur, and the ethics of the idea seems to be the only thing holding us back.  Recently, the CRISPR Cas-9 protein, found in bacteria and used as a kind of immune system against viruses, has been brought up as a potential genome editing protein we could use in prenatal gene therapy.  Prenatal gene therapy is a medical procedure where a genome editing protein with high specificity, such as CRISPR, is implanted into an embryo and used to either remove or correct a mutation that would lead to a terrible, and likely lethal, genetic disease within a child.  Performing gene therapy on an embryo rather than a child already born would be very advantageous because the embryo has much less cells necessary to target and the cells that receive the therapy will eventually divide into other cells that will all contain the corrected gene.  Such therapy could be used to correct genetic diseases so that a child is born healthy and further, if the disease was originally heritable the next generation would also not be subject to that disease.  With this technology, we could eliminate Huntington’s Disease from the population just as we eliminated smallpox.

However, without proper research, it is impossible to make such miracles a reality.  Many can easily see how great the benefits of human genetic manipulation would be, but become squeamish when research is actually going to be done and argue that the costs will be too great and that even once we have this technology that it is a “slippery slope” until it is used for the wrong things.  Ultimately, these are risks we are going to need to take.  The ultimate benefit human genetic manipulating technology would have on future generations outweigh any initial costs associated with research.  It is not like we are very long away from great breakthroughs anyways; with research unimpeded it is likely we would be to the point where there were little to no real costs or great failures within a few years.  And with proper regulation, the “slippery slope” will gain more friction and we will stay closer to the original therapeutic goals.  Also, Once the technology is more established, it will become cheaper and more readily available, just as computers did.  Did you know that the first human genome cost $7 billion to sequence and today we can sequence an entire genome for just $1000?  As more research is performed and more technologies invented, cost decreases, so the idea of socioeconomic inequalities in gene therapy and related genetic medicine will eventually become null.

Even with all the benefits of further genetic research, still many people find that they just have a negative feeling in their stomachs even still when it comes to the idea of manipulating the human genome.  Tell me though, if you found out that your unborn daughter was going to die before she turned twenty of a fatal genetic disease, would you not want to help her and give her the full life she deserved?  If you found out your son was going to suffer from a condition that required him to constantly revisit the hospital and limited his ability to live his life to the fullest possibility, would you not want to give him a chance to live an unimpeded life that he could enjoy to the fullest?  If you found out that you were a carrier for a recessive genetic disease, not knowing whether your partner was a carrier as well, would you want to have to worry about your children having that disease and possibly choose to refrain from having children or would you rather continue with your plans for a family knowing that no matter what your child will be healthy?

Genetic manipulation is what allows for there to even be a choice in each of the scenarios above.  Right now, many people are faced with only one option, and it is not the better of the two.  We could change lives and save lives, but the stigma against this great technology is preventing such.  Such an opportunity would not have been presented were we as a human race not to take advantage of it.  We have a manifest destiny in the new frontier of genetics, and it is about time we started properly exploring.

-CRW

. . . Goes It So And

September 3, 2015 § 2 Comments

“It will only be a little pinch.”

Doctors always say that. I think they say it more for themselves than for the patient. A little asterisk to fluff their conscious. They hurt you, but they tell themselves it is to help you. They hurt you, but it only hurts a little bit. You tell me when the last time was that you got a shot and it didn’t hurt. The shots that don’t hurt aren’t described as a little pinch, they don’t need to be.

In the years since the civil war, Earth was simply a shell of a civilization. The neighborhoods still stood, but no community to be found. The office buildings still kissed the sky, but no businesses to fill them. There was no economy. No politics. No trust. But there was pain. The civil war took our humanity but it didn’t take our pain.

I was sick of the pain. Fight or flight had served our ancestors well, but I was never one for running, nor fighting really. I was the perfect candidate for the study: weak, depressed, and desperate.

My thoughts were interrupted by the searing pain inflicted by the hundreds of needles suddenly in each vein. No wonder they strapped me down, I thought, running suddenly seemed like the perfect hobby. I could feel the glistening serum fill my veins. With each and every drop I could feel myself changing.

I drifted home after that. What a quack. If anything I was in more pain. My back ached; my knees ached. When we learned how to travel faster than light, so did our knowledge. Cancer was stomped out like a bug within days. Nearly half our population had moved to Mars. But each day we lived with pain.

My disappointment clung to me like dirt. I needed a shower. I scrubbed until my arms were raw but I couldn’t wash away my disappointment. As the steam cleared I looked in the mirror. Terrified, another being looked back at me. His forehead was broad, nose flat, and head rounded. I moved. He moved. I blinked. He blinked.

I was the monster.

I tried to scream but it was a screech that rang out. I needed to see the doctor. I needed to know what was wrong with me. And so I went.

Running down the desolate streets, my backache gradually turned into searing pain. Hunching helped. And so I went.

When I barged into the office the doctor didn’t look surprised. Instead, he looked relieved. I tried to explain my terror but I couldn’t find the words. And so he went.

“I understand your terror. You sought relief from your pain, but to treat your pain would be to treat a symptom, not the cause.”

“Civil war spread like a disease after the human intellect doubled and tripled. It was John Stuart Mill that said ‘it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,’ but he did not account for the emptiness and desperation that accompanies dissatisfaction.”

“The desire for perfection was a virus that ran rampant after that. We tried to regroup but it was too far-gone. It is only through regression to our primitive selves that can truly cure the pain that civilization suffers from.”

“Consider yourself ground zero for the civilization that is to evolve.”

And so it goes. . .

7605-illustration-of-an-evolution-progression-pv

S. Jamison

Grumpy the Dwarf

September 24, 2012 § 1 Comment

As I approach the ripe old age of 21, I can look back fondly on some wonderful moments in my life; however, those truly unforgettable memories are often dark ones.  Like any other average Joe, I have seen enough violence and betrayal to question the kindness of other people.  After seeing some of my closest friends go through living hell, who can blame us for wishing for a better world?  What if we could prevent all this selfishness in the future by genetically engineering our children into altruistic beings?

Altruism seems like an all too appealing concept. Merriam-Webster defines it as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.”   Biologically speaking, there’s evidence for altruism in ecological communities such as bee hives, where worker bees selflessly gather nourishment for the queen bee.  But with humans, things get a bit complicated.  We’re self-motivated beings, and we often times seem to be living testaments to the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mentality.

One of my favorite extracurricular activities is Alternative Spring Break, a week spent with 11 strangers doing community service.  On my trip, I got to spend my time learning about Tibetan culture and assisting a community of Tibetans in St. Paul with their day of protest.  Although my group provided service and gave them open minds, there was still an innate “selfishness.”  For me, doing this kind of cultural service makes me feel really happy; I have so much fun learning about other cultures and find gratification in seeing my work come to fruition.  Even though my intentions weren’t purely altruistic, does this diminish the quality of the assistance we provided?  I don’t see it that way.

My Chinese mother always scolded me for being tai lao shi.  Too honest. Too naive.  It used to be too easy for people to walk all over people like me.

 

So if we could make our children purely selfless beings, we would have to impose this new genetic modification on every child.  Bring on the ethical dilemmas, please.

But let’s pretend that we could actually convince every parent to agree to this genetic makeover.  One possible repercussion from this is quite simple: grumpiness.  I’m reminded of the character Elva from the Inheritance Trilogy by Christopher Paolini.  She was accidentally coerced by magic into becoming a completely self-sacrificing person after birth.  Although she selflessly protected every person around her, she was unhappy all the time from taking on everyone else’s problems.  So would we really making the world a better place?  To me, it seems like we would just become a horde of grumpy people, quietly suffering from our “goodness.”

My final verdict? I’ll pass on having Grumpy the Dwarf as my kiddo, please.

-Angela L. B4

To Bee Or Not To Bee

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Altruism, as a result of evolution, has been displayed throughout the animal kingdom. Whether it is the worker termites protecting their queen or the drone bees performing a similar role, somewhere along the path altruism was deemed as favorable by evolution. However, these animals did not choose to become altruistic beings. So the question arises, if you could artificially give your offspring a gene (or genes rather because something as complex as a character trait is undoubtedly coded for by more than one gene, if it is even inheritable at all) that would make the child more altruistic would you?

I guess in some form or fashion, all parents want their children to be “good people” (whatever that means). Not being a parent, I guess this is all speculation on my part but isn’t it okay to allow your children to mess up every now and then. Live and learn right? Part of what makes people extremely successful is that they know from experience what doesn’t work. By altering your children’s genes and, in essence, forcing them to be nice people you are depriving them of the opportunity to learn for themselves; you are depriving them of free will.

Part of being a good person is one’s choice to be a good person. Creating a set of genes that remove a person’s choice to be a good person defeats the purpose. I would rather teach my children the importance of being kind to others rather than insert a gene that compels him to do just that.

Society (or maybe our human nature?) has instilled in us some general guidelines, if you will, of what it means to be a good person: respecting others, respecting yourself, abiding by preexisting laws, etc. However, there is certainly a point where someone can go overboard by being a good person. At what point does one step back and say, “Maybe I should be selfish this one time?”

Of course, nobody actually utters those words. But at what point does being altruistic become harmful to one’s well-being? In some cases, you simply have to be selfish and look out for yourself. After all the wild is governed by one rule: Eat or be eaten.

If we assume that the drone bees had a developed brain for higher level thinking, there is no way they would continue in their altruistic, suicidal behavior. Luckily, these bees don’t have a cerebral cortex that parallels that of humans and therefore cannot make the choice to veer away from their current lifestyle. Conversely, humans can. What’s the difference you ask? It’s all a matter of choice. Choice makes humans human; lack of choice makes drone bees drone bees. If humans didn’t choose to be altruistic, what would differentiate our lives from those of the poor drone bees?

Nothing. Except that humans don’t make honey.

-Pranav Santapuram

 

 

Reflections: Gattaca (1997)

September 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

“There is no gene for the human spirit.”

This was my first time watching the film Gattaca, and I have to say that I was thoroughly engrossed for all 100 or so minutes.  There were a number of specific things that I enjoyed, including the death and rebirth end scene that strongly reminded me of the opening credits to Ghost in the Shell, the film that I touched upon in my first blog post, Self and Cyborg.  I loved the cinematography of Gattaca as well.  For example there were some great shots that shaped the film’s commentary on discrimination.  My personal favorites included the rather grim images of the Gattaca workplace (see below).

The simple, professional wardrobe that all the workers wear remind me of the manufactured parts of a machine.  The production of each part is reduced down to an exact formula or protocol, resulting in pieces that are virtually free of any visible imperfections.  When Vincent’s parents were talking to the geneticist, I felt as if they were custom designing a piece of furniture, not welcoming a child into the world.  Everything had to be perfect.  The doctor expressed this sentiment pretty well: “We want to give your child the best possible start. Believe me, we have enough imperfection built in already.”

Although I enjoyed thinking about whittling down discrimination to a science, I greatly appreciated the overall feeling I got from the film.  As my opening quote suggests, I felt comforted by the fact that there is some “spirit” or simply some motivation that is beyond the reach of human manipulation.  When I was in high school, I remember having a rather pessimistic view on life.  I thought there would always be a glass ceiling, and that there are some dreams that some of us simply cannot achieve.  Perhaps this is true to some degree.  However, there is so much value in challenging our limits.  If we get too bogged down in what we can’t achieve, we start to only see ourselves for our flaws.  As Vincent put it, there is no reason why we should “save any for the swim back.”

-Angela L.

Increased Understanding of Our Genome

August 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Probably one of the most exciting breakthroughs in science in the past 20 years was the complete mapping of the human genome. For the first time, we have the complete “human cookbook”. However, our actual understanding of the intricacies of these roughly 3 billion base pairs is somewhat lacking. Yes, we understand the concept of gene expression and duplication, gene transfer using bacterial vectors, and even down to identifying point mutations in a single gene, but there is so much more to learn. With an increased understanding of our genome we could possibly utilize genes known as homeobox genes (Hox genes for short) which play a crucial role during embryonic development. Even the controversial stem cells (undifferentiated somatic cells) would be utilized.

With a complete understanding of the genes that make the 7 billion people on this planet, the possibilities (both good and bad) are endless. In The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, rich individuals clone themselves. These “younger versions” of themselves are in turn used for their organs. Theoretically, this harvesting of organs from clones could extend one’s life span far beyond what is naturally feasible. In essence, this would create a sort of class war; the rich would utilize this technology to the fullest and extend their life spans while living healthier lives overall. However the poor, without access to this technology, would be forced to live a “natural” and therefore inferior life.

In the realm of science fiction, it is easy to extrapolate this technology. When war comes into play, the genetic engineering of soldiers to create an army of “super-soldiers” of sorts would be a popular theme. One can extend the class war to countries. Richer countries would be able to create amazing armies to beef up their own military while poorer countries would have to resort to the usual armies. The science fiction stories that could possibly stem from this advancement in genomics would be endless.

-Pranav Santapuram

 

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Genes at Science/Fiction.

%d bloggers like this: