The Eloquent Engineer: The Dark Side of DNA

The rate of scientific discoveries has been increasing exponentially for centuries and we are on the leading edge of that vast wave. New technology comes at us so fast that most people have become numb to it. New electronics? Ho hum. A revolutionary physics theory, another extraterrestrial planet, or uncovering the bones of a hitherto unknown ancient ancestor, nothing fazes us any more. We accept world-changing discoveries matter-of-factly, that is, if we notice at all.

However, something special is happening in the field of genetics. Historically, genetics is the study of heredity, but over the last half century, it has become synonymous with understanding and controlling DNA. As such, genetics is a subject that holds the almost magical promise of human health and longevity. Even though we have only barely started down this path, genetically modified plants and animals help feed billions worldwide,[1] doctors routinely screen for genetic abnormalities in newborn babies,[2] and criminologists use DNA to identify suspects.[3] But where is this scientific endeavor taking us?

In order to understand where we are going, we must first look back at where we have been. In 1665 using a primitive microscope, Robert Hooke described honeycomb-shaped structures he found on a piece of cork. He called them cells. In the 1830’s, Robert Brown used a vastly improved microscope to observe a central sphere inside cells. He called this structure a nucleus. Soon thereafter, Theodor Schwann and Mathias Schleiden concluded that the nucleus plays a central role in the reproduction and growth of cells, thereby establishing the basis of modern cell theory. Almost two centuries after Hooke and some thirty years after Brown, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species presenting the theory that those members of a population who are better adapted to their environment survive to pass on their traits. However, Darwin could only describe the final result of the evolutionary process, not how it worked on a molecular level.

Knowledge accumulated steadily over the next half century so that by the early 1900s, a hereditary hypothesis was taking shape and gaining acceptance within the biological community. Researchers identified extremely long threads of nucleic acids and proteins residing in the nuclei of every living cell. They called them chromosomes. Somehow, this enormously complex arrangement directs the growth of the individual and the evolution of a species.

It took until 1953 for James Watson and Francis Crick to develop the three-dimensional model of a DNA strand, the now famous, double helix. Let’s dwell on this for a moment. A mere fifty-five years ago, scientists identified for the first time what the inner core of life itself looked like. Only then, could they even ask the right questions, let alone understand the answers. What part of DNA controls growth? How does it work? Can it make a mistake? What role does DNA play in disease? In aging?

In 1990, the Human Genome Project is launched, an international $3 billion effort to sequence all three-billion base pairs and map the genetic markers on all 23 chromosomes in a single human genome. Thirteen years later, on the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure by Crick and Watson, HGP published the first complete human genetic sequence in the journal Nature (24 April 2003), more than two years ahead of schedule. Since then, technology has improved. Today, a mere four years later, researchers survey a half million base pairs at a time making it possible to map an entire genome in hours for only a few dollars.

This amazing progress is opening up an entire new line of investigation. The Tree of Life, or as some call it, the Barcode of Life, is a global reference library that will eventually contain DNA from all 1.8 million species on Earth, a giant telephone directory that people and organizations are already using for a variety of purposes from identification of hazardous fish to behavior of birds around airports.[4] As more and more genomes within a species accumulate in this enormous repository, the better we understand the subtleties within that species.[5] Human DNA is but one among the multitude, special to us, yet realistically simply another thread in the fabric of life.

However, this is not the only such project. There are many collecting and studying DNA. The HapMap Project is an international effort aimed at collecting human DNA from human populations all over the world.[6] The National Geographic Society sponsored genomic studies to shed light on the expansion and evolution of ancient humans.[7] Using comparative analysis, researchers are just beginning to mine this immense ocean of data, striving to identify the subtle differences that define the characteristics of living organisms. Make no mistake, complete understanding is coming, it is only a question of when.

What does this mean to you and me? Researchers have already identified the gene variants causing macular degeneration, breast cancer, prostrate cancer, colon cancer, and inflammatory bowel disease.[8] Of particular note, they have found plants that can mend their own genetic mistakes.[9] Scientists routinely clone genes in the course of their studies,[10] and have even extracted genetic material from a 38,000-year-old Neanderthal bone fragment.[11] The amount of information concerning genetics is astounding and growing every day. As scientists learn, family doctors will expand the number of genetic therapies to include virtually every ailment, curing everything from being a blind overweight moron with a bad memory to cancer, diabetes, and AIDS. In the near future, you will have a genetic therapy designed just for you, based on your personal genome.[12] Doctors will soon have almost total control over the biology of living organisms, human or otherwise, able to treat their patients at the molecular level. Scientists have already stimulated bone marrow stem cells to grow into a complete, functioning heart valve for children in a process called Tissue Engineering.[13] Once we understand how DNA works, it is a very short ride to controlling the process. After all, why treat a symptom when you can fix the problem at its source?

We have come to realize that, biologically speaking, genes control everything. Our growth, our metabolic rate, our mental processes, our health and thus, our happiness… and humanity is on the verge of understanding how it works, all of it, right down to the miniscule differences between you and me.[14] The rate at which these and other breakthroughs are reported is increasing exponentially, until today, we read about them almost daily. Here are but a few of the recent headlines: Scientists use gene therapy to restore deaf mammals hearing.[15] Key gene believed root of evolution.[16] Gene studied for possible role in adult diabetes cases.[17] HIV gene tests encouraging.[18] Parkinson’s gene therapy shows promise.[19] Genes research looks for clues to good memory.[20] Fat gene found but no clue how it works. [21] Gene tied to form of Alzheimer’s.[22] Disabling of genes aids in cancer fight.[23] Study finds new genetic risk factors for Type 2 diabetes.[24] Researchers discover itching gene.[25] Scientists identify MS-causing genes.[26] Glaucoma-causing gene mutations discovered.[27]

As more and more of this marvelous biological process falls under human control, what will we do with its power? Will we design our children? Sorry but that is already underway. For years, prospective mothers have had the ability to quickly and cheaply gender test their embryos.[28] However, what began as gender selection has quickly grown to include many of the genetic markers discussed earlier. Within the first few weeks of a pregnancy, parents can use this information to decide if they want to have an abortion and start over. Not surprising, some parents with deafness, dwarfism, or gigantism want similar kids.[29] They use this technology to screen for their particular genetic variant, establishing their own definition of normal.

Perhaps some among us will use this power to design the perfect soldier, someone incapable of questioning orders and willing to die on command? As a vet and an observer of modern politics, I have no problem imagining Army generals or Washington politicians using Genetic Engineering to achieve their goals, all the while feeling justified in doing so. I hope this is simply speculation on my part, but it worries me.

The darkest side of genetics is the two edged sword, immortality. Sure, we would all like to live long lives, but what happens if we actually do it, staying healthy and vibrant well over 100 years. This is not as farfetched as it once was. Scientists have already discovered the genes that control aging in mice.[30] It is a very short step to finding the same markers in humans.[31] How will society change if genetics can extend human life indefinitely? How long can a human being live if their body never grows old? Perhaps someday we will control the aging process so well that we can back it up, have our doctor dial in what age we want to be. Oh, let’s see. I think I would like to be twenty-five again. That was a good year. But I ask you, where will we all live?

As a humanist, I respect knowledge yet am wary of those who would abuse it. No doubt the genetic genie is out of the bottle and cannot be returned. Whether we like it or not, genetic science is quickly approaching the point when human life can be extended indefinitely. Will we grant this boon to everyone? Or will it only be for Bill Gates and others who can afford immortality? On one hand, I believe that health and a long life must not become the purview of the very rich and powerful. On the other hand, as the death rate plummets, the world’s population will skyrocket unless birth rates dropped correspondingly. Even if restricting birth rates worldwide were possible, a low rate would disturb the timeless cycle of life and death, causing generational change to grind to a stop. It is enough to make your head spin.

There are currently 6.6 billion people on the Earth, increasing by a billion more every dozen years or so. Simply maintaining this population explosion will quickly leave no room for the next generation. Radical advances in medical science are exerting a positive influence on human health and longevity thereby acerbating the situation. Yet, humanity continues to strive for this Fountain of Youth without regard for the consequence of finding it. Careful what you wish for, you may get it.

I can find only one viable solution; expand into space in a big way thereby providing humanity the freedom to grow and enjoy long lives. All other answers lead either to (1) war and suffering as humanity overwhelms the Earth with sheer numbers, fighting amongst itself for the last few scraps of food, water, and land or (2) increased control of society by those who can afford the biotechnology, consolidating their hold on it while shutting out the vast majority of humanity. Neither of these futures sounds particularly appealing.

As luck would have it, Genetic Engineering is a very important component to any space colonization effort. The space environment is fraught with hazards that only a complete understanding and control of genetics can overcome. Bone and muscle deterioration, radiation, and vast distances all become solvable with genetics. The idea of colonizing space saving humanity is shared by such leading thinkers as Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson. This article simply points out another very good reason why they are right.

Extending and improving the quality of life is a good problem to have but nevertheless, it is a problem and we need reasonable people discussing it openly and honestly. Outlawing stem cell research, or any research, is not the right approach. It simply shifts the problem away from America and places it outside our political influence. What is forbidden in one country is encouraged in another. We are quickly approaching a global economy, if we are not already there, and research into genetics will take place somewhere. If we make laws against something here, it simply pops up somewhere else, but it does not go away, no matter how much our politicians think differently. We need sensible laws governing all aspects of this rapidly emerging technology, laws that protect the rights of everyone regardless of their station in life. But mostly we need the collective will to colonize space and expand humanity’s horizons. Only out there will we find the freedom to live long and prosperous lives.

[1] Biotech corn mistakenly sold to farmers. Associated Press, 3/23/05[2][3] Bill would expand DNA database. USA Today, 10/2/2005[4] Government taps into DNA ‘barcodes’ for 1.8M species. Associated Press, 9/15/07[5] Genetic family tree of all life is beginning to bear fruit. National Geographic News, 9/6/06



[8] Human genome project is beginning to bear fruit, McClatchy Newspapers, 8/3/07

[9] Plants can mend genetic mistakes. Washington Post, 2006

[10] Scientists clone disease-causing gene. Tribune, 11/13/05

[11] Neanderthal bone could yield gene link to humans. Associated Press, 11/16/06

[12] Personalized medicine promises tailor-made diagnosis, treatments. National Geographic News, 10/18/06

[13] Scientists near heart valve breakthrough. Newsday, 9/15/07

[14] DNA suggests we’re less alike than scientists thought. Associated Press, 9/4/07

[15] Scientists use gene therapy to restore deaf mammals hearing. LA Times, 2/14/05

[16] Key gene believed root of evolution. Associated Press, 8/17/06

[17] Gene studied for possible role in adult diabetes cases. Washington Post, 1/16/06

[18] HIV gene tests encouraging. Associated Press, 11/7/06

[19] Parkinson’s gene therapy shows promise. Associated Press, 4/17/07

[20] Genes research looks for clues to good memory. McClatchy Newspapers, 3/17/07

[21] Fat gene found but no clue how it works. Associated Press, 4/13/07

[22] Gene tied to form of Alzheimer’s. Associated Press, 1/15/07

[23] Disabling of genes aids in cancer fight. Dallas Good Morning News, 4/12/07

[24] Study finds new genetic risk factors for Type 2 diabetes. Associated Press, 4/27/07

[25] Researchers discover itching gene. St Louis Post-Dispatch, 7/27/07

[26] Scientists identify MS-causing genes. South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 7/30/07

[27] Glaucoma-causing gene mutations discovered. LA Times, 8/12/07

[28] Designing your own baby. Boston Globe, 8/8/05

[29] Making designer babies – with genetic defects. Associated Press, 12/22/06

[30] Scientists target souped-up gene to slow aging in mice. Seattle Times, 5/9/05

[31] ‘It’s the Holy Grail of aging research’. Associated Press, 11/2/06

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