04 January 2013

Moving Toward a Brave New World

In Aldous Huxley's classic 1932 novel Brave New World, we are introduced to a future world of universal genetically engineered humans. Each person's destiny is precisely and genetically determined in the laboratory before birth, so as to promote harmony in the perfect society. "A place for everyone, and everyone in his place," would be an understated description of the brave new society.

Brave New World (narrated by author)
An international team of researchers from MIT, Harvard, Tsinghua University, Columbia University, and the Rockefeller University, have taken a significant step toward Brave New World style complex genomic editing. Now scientists can efficiently add and delete genetic segments over multiple areas of the genome, simultaneously. The scientific world of genetic engineering is unlikely to ever be the same again.
Precise genome editing would have, the authors say, powerful applications across basic science, biotechnology and medicine. The technology, based on a bacterial defense system against viruses, could offer an easy-to-use, less-expensive way to engineer organisms that produce biofuels, to design animal models to study human disease, and to develop new therapies, among other potential applications.

They further note that it could be used to treat human diseases, either inserting missing or dysfunctional genes, or removing harmful genetic elements with much more precision than any available techniques.

...Making use of naturally occurring bacterial protein-RNA systems that recognize and snip viral DNA, the researchers created DNA-editing complexes that include a nuclease enzyme, Cas9, bound to short RNA sequences. These sequences can be designed to target specific locations in the genome; when they encounter a match, the Cas9 nuclease cuts the DNA.

And each of the RNA segments can target a different sequence. “That’s the beauty of this—you can easily program a nuclease to target one or more positions in the genome,” Zhang says, noting that it can be used either to disrupt the function of a gene or to replace it with a new one. To replace the gene, the researchers must also add a DNA template for the new gene, which would be copied into the genome after the DNA is cut.

The method is also very precise... _More at GenEngNews
MIT News Release on story
Among other possible applications, this system could be used to design new therapies for diseases such as Huntington’s disease, which appears to be caused by a single abnormal gene. Clinical trials that use zinc finger nucleases to disable genes are now under way, and the new technology could offer a more efficient alternative.

The system might also be useful for treating HIV by removing patients’ lymphocytes and mutating the CCR5 receptor, through which the virus enters cells. After being put back in the patient, such cells would resist infection.

This approach could also make it easier to study human disease by inducing specific mutations in human stem cells. “Using this genome editing system, you can very systematically put in individual mutations and differentiate the stem cells into neurons or cardiomyocytes and see how the mutations alter the biology of the cells,” Zhang says. _MIT

In Huxley's Brave New World, human society is intentionally stratified by genetically programmed aptitude.
Brave New World is a benevolent dictatorship: a static, efficient, totalitarian welfare-state. There is no war, poverty or crime. Society is stratified by genetically-predestined caste. Intellectually superior Alphas are the top-dogs. Servile, purposely brain-damaged Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons toil away at the bottom. The lower orders are necessary in BNW because Alphas - even soma-fuelled Alphas - could allegedly never be happy doing menial jobs. _http://www.huxley.net/
But in the developing Brave New World of genetic engineering, everyone will want to be an Alpha.

It will be many years before genome editing techniques are reliable enough to use routinely in humans. But that will not prevent them from being used experimentally on political prisoners, for example, inside totalitarian states. And wouldn't it be ironic if the first genetically designed super-intelligent human turned out to be "an enemy of the state?"

Obscure developments in out of the way laboratories can have profound and widespread effects on the human world. Watch closely, and always consider your options.


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Blogger Stephen said...

I think this century will see the Upper Classes and perhaps later the Middle Classes (if there is anything left of them) turning into the Superhumans from Gattaca. In many ways this will turn out to be a good thing but we will probably have a very caste divided society between those tall, brilliant, handsome, strong, and healthy superhumans and the lower orders born and reared the ordinary way.

Friday, 04 January, 2013  
Blogger al fin said...

The hope is to develop the disruptive technologies of individual-scale biomedical genetics design and production, distributed small-scale manufacturing of necessities, local distributed food and energy production, advanced personal transport, etc. Perhaps, even to the point that what we think of now as "tall, brilliant, handsome, strong, and healthy superhumans," will only be seen as one personal choice among many -- some of them much preferable to our current ideal, perhaps.

Of course, what we see at the Al Fin Institutes as "The Next Level Human" would leave "Superhumans from Gattaca" in the dust. I could say more, but that would be telling.


Saturday, 05 January, 2013  

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