DNA Manipulation in Living Subjects

This episode is sponsored by Dashlane. Genetic engineering holds the promise of one
day fixing congenital health problems when the patient is just a zygote. But if you happen to already be older than
a zygote, like I am, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s too late. Medicine has historically been something we
put in our bodies, but what if we could alter the body itself to heal or even improve ourselves? Today we’ll be talking about methods we
might use to alter DNA in living organisms and why we might want to do it and what challenges
might emerge if we can. I suppose the best place to begin is with
the notion of Designer Babies. A recurring worry about the future and genetics
is that folks might decide to custom make their children for preferred traits and also
for traits that don’t even exist in modern humans. Tweaking your kid to be very good looking,
tall, smart, safe from any genetic disorders and so on. Scary idea in many ways, but we’ll be showing
today that with certain technologies this doesn’t have to be too scary. Unfortunately, it’s also something we should
expect to see and probably in at most two generations from now. Much like artificial intelligence, it’s
not a problem for today, but it is one for tomorrow, not just the pages of science fiction
novels. That said, while we’ll discuss designer
babies to introduce the basic concepts and concerns, scientific and social and ethical,
we’re more interested today in altering the DNA of fully developed organisms, not
just at the fertilization stage, but that’s where we should start. The technology is already there, we can flat-out
print DNA these days, albeit at exorbitant cost in money and time at the moment, so yes
we could take a sample of someone’s DNA, digitally encode it, cut the undesired bits
for other desired bits, print it and stick it in an egg and implant that. We’ve some other methods too, which work
better for minor tweaks, but that lets you do whatever you please. However, it doesn’t guarantee a viable organism
on the other side. Just because you can alter a blueprint to
whatever you want and print it, doesn’t mean the machine or building in that schematic
is going to function well, you need to know what you’re doing and if we tried to do
much beyond replacing known genetic defects with safe strands or other existing human
traits, or traits of whichever organism we’re contemplating, we only have incredibly limited
ways of determining if it will or will not turn out badly. “Badly” isn’t just limited to the organism
not being viable or having all the traits you wanted, but also long term side effects. Being born a superman, presumably to very
wealthy parents too, able to solve advanced math and science problems in between your
gigs for your modeling career posing with Olympic gold medals is probably going to spawn
some personality problems. It’s hard to treat someone for narcissism
if it’s a bit debatable if they are actually narcissistic or merely realistic about how
awesome they are. “It ain’t bragging if it’s true” as
the saying goes. Truth be told I’m not terribly worried about
elite super-humans wrecking society and I’ll explain why in a bit, but it’s a popular
notion in sci-fi and it is a real concern that folks who have been significantly altered
from the norm, even for the apparent better, might have all sorts of psychological issues,
be it narcissism or depression or any of a hundred other things. So the big question: Is it okay to alter your
kids DNA to be better than what they would get naturally? That’s impossible to answer obviously but
like a lot of questions involving the ethics of future technologies we should start by
asking if this is really a new problem. As I’ve noted in previous episodes, civilizations
have featured folks cobbling together potions for making you healthy or stronger or irresistibly
attractive to others for at least as long as we’ve had records. That they didn’t work doesn’t change that
folks thought they did and used them. Trying to shoot someone with a gun that doesn’t
work but you didn’t know it didn’t is still attempted murder, and giving someone
a love charm to garner their affections through mind control is not ethically better than
giving them some high-tech brainwashing just because the latter presumably actually works. So whether or not it’s okay to alter your
kids to be better than natural, it’s something we’ve been doing for a long time. I’m not really sure how DNA alteration would
be uniquely different than any of the other methods we used now or in the past, effective
or not. Now, two people contain a lot of DNA and an
incredibly vast number of combinations are possible from any given couple, without even
adding DNA from other folks. Nor is a kids DNA only from their parents,
everybody is a little bit of a mutant so I don’t think you can argue that splicing
in one or two DNA sequences neither parent has makes them not their biological kid, even
ignoring that anyone who has ever adopted a kid would not look favorably on the notion
that your kid has to have your DNA. Also we should keep in mind that we have been
breeding plants, animals, and even humans for traits for a long time, and that is DNA
alteration, just like the love potion example, not done as scientifically. Ethically the skill at which you tinker with
someone shouldn’t matter to the morality of doing it, except that it is generally more
ethical to do something if you’re actually skilled at it rather than just making guesses
and relying on luck and quackery. So we’ve got four issues there. First, is it okay to splice some DNA in to
avoid a genetic trait both parents had that would lead to a terminal illness? Second, is it okay to alter DNA to avoid something
that is debatable as a deficit or at least not life threatening? Third, is it okay to add some trait that really
isn’t medically necessary, like splicing in a gene to be tall if both parents were
short and always felt disadvantaged by that? And fourth, is it okay to be splicing in something
from a different organism entirely, or invented from the ground up in a lab? And as an addendum to that, if it isn’t
okay to do it with humans, is it okay to do that with non-human organisms? Like glow in the dark monkeys. What about putting human DNA into non-human
organisms? Again, no answers here, beyond noting that
there are plenty of historical and modern non-DNA equivalents, both successful and those
equivalent to love potions. Parents want the best for their kids and that’s
part of the problem. If other folks starting making their kids
super-athletic, handsome geniuses, then your kid hasn’t changed but it raises the fear
that they can’t compete. So at least some folks will start doing it
who otherwise wouldn’t just because they don’t want their kid to be obsolete. If the process is expensive, will it be limited
to the rich, or those willing to mortgage their home or go to shady medical facilities
for the process . Now, I find that iffy reasoning. First, a society that suddenly has a boom
in geniuses is one that is more productive and more technologically advanced soon thereafter
so can probably make the process a lot cheaper and safer. Second, probably one of the better known traits
of very smart people is a tendency to want to make other people smarter. Arguably it’s just a habit of experts wanting
to gush about their field of expertise to anyone who willing to listen but I don’t
recall any of my own professors or friends teaching at school or university complaining
about their students being too smart. I certainly recall them complaining about
them being not too bright or being too lazy, so I think we can say that if we suddenly
start spawning vats of geniuses they aren’t going to decide to hoard knowledge or brains
for themselves. I also can’t speak for anyone else but I’ve
never had an urge to oppress or murder those dumber than me, albeit I’ve occasionally
wanted to scream at them. Of course it might be different if they regarded
themselves as a whole new species but while kids often excel at things better than their
parents did, very few seem to harbor patricidal tendencies so for gradual improvements I wouldn’t
think it would be an issue. Moreover, I don’t think it would prevent
the attempts, since again parents want what’s best for their kids and when we warn parents
about striving too hard for that, it’s usually because we’re worried they’re putting
too much pressure on those kids, not out of a fear they’ll turn genocidal on the “Mundanes”. But this does bring up another ethical issue,
not whether or not its moral to genetically tweak your kid, but if it’s immoral to do
it without their consent, which they obviously can’t give as a zygote or embryo, even a
really smart one. And I think we’d have to say informed consent
too, getting your toddler to willingly agree to jump into the Gene-Splicer 3000 is not
informed consent by an adult of sound mind. This is the problem, because at the moment,
while this technology is still in its earliest infancy, it can only be done to folks in their
earliest infancy. So consent isn’t even an option. Now obviously folks have to make big decisions
for their kids, you don’t ask your kid if they want to learn to speak or get vaccinated,
let alone if they want to be born in the first place. Still, it’s a big change and would sit a
lot better if it’s a change that could be done as an adult. That also eliminates the obsolescence issue,
since anyone could then get it done, if they choose to. They could also get upgrades or changes or
even downgrades later on as it improved or their desires changed. There is always a fear that the ultra-wealthy
would hoard such technology but while I can’t dismiss that entirely, I tend to feel it’s
working on an assumption of a zero-sum game. I do tend to place trust in humanity’s better
nature, especially when its members are acting under a spotlight and watching each other,
but we don’t actually need to. Everybody benefits in a society where folks
are healthy, smarter, and live longer, there’s no real advantage to keeping other folks unhealthy,
dumb, or short-lived relative to yourself. Though I don’t doubt some folks would prefer
that and I suppose certain combinations of events might allow such a stratified dystopia. There could also be unforeseen consequences
to a society that’s healthier, smarter, and longer-lived, and we examined some of
those in our Post-Scarcity Civilizations series. I think though the more likely situation is
that folks who had alterations along those lines would encourage others to get them,
not force them to get them or deny access to them, and would generally raise the net
productivity of society enough that even those folks left behind could still enjoy a much
higher standard of living and opportunity than now. Of course I’m a noted optimist. Whichever the case though, it’s not really
a new problem, we arguably had it with education in the past, and it is also the same one we
have with cybernetics. Indeed I’d actually expect cybernetics to
be the more preferred route for folks trying to become superhuman but they’re also not
exclusive. Some folks might prefer only the genetic route,
maybe some only the cybernetic, but I’d imagine most who were okay with one would
be okay with both. As a side note I mentioned longer lives and
that is actually an automatic consequence of being able to manipulate DNA in fully mature
organisms. The basic notion is that you’ve got to replace
all their DNA with the altered versions, which is many trillions of them throughout our trillions
of cells, and a lot of what we call aging appears to be just the slow breakdown and
mutation or cancer of various cells and their DNA so if you can go around replacing those
with altered ones, expanded gene therapy as it were, it rather eliminates that aspect
of aging. As we discussed in the Science of Aging, there’s
more to achieving biological immortality than keeping your DNA fresh but just doing that
alone would vastly extend lifespans. It also implies technologies that could be
adapted to handle most of the other known aging problems too. Okay, so how do we actually do that? Get into the tens of trillions of cells in
the typical human and replace their DNA? Well obviously we start by experimenting on
non-humans and again the episode is “DNA Manipulation in Living Subjects” which isn’t
limited to humans. It was a poll-selected topic so I’m not
sure of the intent of either the person who suggested it or the various folks who voted
for it on our Facebook group, but I’m assuming the main interest was humans. We’ll talk about non-human applications
briefly in a bit. The big ultimate fallback technology for tinkering
with humans, either their DNA or just repairing damage, is always nanotechnology, specifically
sending in trillions of self-replicating robots to go dive into each cell and get the job
done, like repairing a damaged city brick by brick. But we already have nanotechnology whereas
we don’t have tiny autonomous machines or self-replicating ones. Or rather we’ve got those too, but we didn’t
actually make them. Hijacking all the microscopic organisms already
floating around in humans, or in other organisms, is one possible method that seems more promising,
at least in the short term and could ultimately be functionally identical to the nanobot process. You’ve probably heard of CRISPR, Clustered
Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, and indeed it is not from humans but may be
a great boon to humans. Essentially it’s DNA sequences that can
be used as markers to identify and snip out a chunk of DNA and replace it with something
else. This is pretty much what we’d do with tiny
nanorobots too. By and large, DNA is very good at replicating
itself with minimum drift so if you can tag and fix bits of a DNA strand or replace them
with a new one with a preferred sequence, you can basically let those little buggers
run around doing the work. Alternatively you might simply make a few
cells of each type with the preferred feature and some tag of their own, then send in viruses
to slowly kill off the cells that didn’t have that tag. Your cells all replace themselves with time
so if you have a few healthy ones with the preferred tweak, you can rely on them replacing
the others if you can make those others more likely to die off than the new ones. You could also wholesale replace organs too,
you aren’t likely to reject some cloned organ that is your DNA with a couple minor
tweaks. That might be one way folks gradually adopt
genetic alteration. Your heart is needing replaced and you get
a cloned one grown, but your doctors suggest you get the cloned version grown from your
own DNA with a tweak or two to remove some defect or add a sequence that makes for healthier
hearts. Your organs don’t all have identical DNA
to each other, and it doesn’t make you a Frankenstein monster either. Or more than we are now anyway. A DNA sample from one part of your body won’t
perfectly match a sample from another part or from a sample taken when you were younger
anyway, this would just be more deliberate. I suppose it’s unnatural but I’m still
waiting on meaningful and workable definitions of natural and artificial that apply to anything
humans do in the first place. If the replacement cloned organ does it job
and doesn’t get rejected then it’s a strictly philosophical issue that’s its DNA has been
tweaked when we grew it, and since we didn’t know what DNA was till the middle of the last
century, not many philosophers have addressed the matter. Though let us not be blasé about the risks
and dangers of genetic engineering, they’re already very real, if often rather exaggerated
and treated as a boogeyman in my opinion, but as we get better at it those dangers will
get more real too. It’s great to make a crop that produces
twice as much food off the same land, it solves a lot of food issues and ecological ones too
by requiring less land, but there’s obviously a lot of concerns about GMOs both in terms
of nutrition and ecology. And these are, thus far, fairly minor tweaks. Some of those problems will go away just by
getting better at it, but it also introduces new ones, since you can be a LOT more ambitious. I dislike thinking of newly spawned organisms
as freaks and abominations but even I flinch a bit at the notion of a tree we had gene-hacked
to have blood instead of sap and grow meatballs as fruit. Fields of bacon-grass that we mowed like hay
has its appeal, most things involving bacon do, but perhaps some stones are best left
unturned and some roads best not traveled. On the other hand, it would be pretty awesome
if we could tweak some sort of coral or shell organism to grow those roads for us and maintain
them. As I said earlier, one of the methods of tweaking
DNA in a living organism is to deploy nanobots to do it, and we often think of using those
same nanobots for building and maintaining structures. If we can circumvent nanobots by hijacking
existing microorganisms to do those jobs inside us, and be comfortable with that, we can presumably
do it for outside us too. There’s a pretty blurry line between a hijacked
microorganism being repurposed and genetically altered to serve that role and an outright
nano robot, and arguably no difference at all, same as we might say there’s no difference
between a cybernetic eyeball and a genetically-altered vat grown one. Interestingly we might also expect nanobots
to use something akin to DNA themselves and potentially even to be putting the schematics
for those nanobots or gene-tweaked microorganism into Human DNA or RNA, or even a separate
organelle like mitochondria, the powerhouse of our cells, which has its own distinct and
very not-human DNA, but is still inherited down generations. Of course we’re not limited to human examples
and given the ethical worries about it for humans, we might see alterations in animals
before that. In an extreme case that might be outright
Uplifting, where you alter an animal neurologically and maybe physiologically to human levels,
see that episode for details. In more simple cases, it isn’t necessarily
making a cow that produces more milk, something we’ve been breeding them for down the centuries
already. You might instead alter a plant or algae to
grow milk instead. But altering animals for food production can
be more indirect too, you might alter them to do the actual farming instead. We already use animals for pollinating crops
and aerating soil, such as bees or worms do, and we’ve used large animals for dragging
plows around too. You could potentially wire animals up to tend
crops and pick fruits and nuts and deposit those in bins and take a share for themselves. Same as with the nanobots vs microorganism
case, there’s a gray area between fairly advanced automation and animals, and as we’ve
discussed before it’s a risky proposition to make an artificial intelligence smarter
than it needs to be, so human level AI might not be too common while animal level AI in
robots might be heavily used. But you might go entirely organic too, using
squirrels or other small animals to plant and pick crops. You might genetically alter them to perform
this behavior instinctively or just be smarter and easily trained to the task. The other direction of course is that you
might decide human-plus AI is needed, to tackle certain problems, and be more comfortable
using genetically altered humans who had bigger brains or just were tweaked to be slightly
better at certain types of thinking, reminiscent of the Mentat’s from Frank Herbert’s Dune. Ethically speaking that’s the sort of thing
you’d rather do to an adult volunteer and via a process which could be reversed, and
so we tend to think of that as cybernetic augmentation, but if you can do DNA manipulation
of adult organisms that door is open as an alternative too. That’s a key notion also, because the ability
to do it living subjects means not just that it can be done with the informed consent of
the subject, but that it can be reversed too. If you want to have your DNA tweaked to be
covered in muscle or a savant at math or similar, being able to opt for it as an adult and able
to reverse it is likely to be a huge factor in whether or not society is okay with such
alterations, and is why it’s a very distinct thing from the notion of Designer Babies. I would not be surprised if we saw that, but
I’d also not be surprised if we saw that banned too, and only lifted when we could
make changes to adults and reversible ones and ones which were not inherited, being specific
to given organs rather than sperm or eggs. It avoids a lot of the worries, and opens
up a lot of doors, though it’s still quite the Pandora’s Box. Of course, that’s true of almost everything
we discuss on the channel and a lot of the things our civilization is doing or has done
in prior times too. So I suspect we will see this technology emerge
and probably this century, and probably for all sorts of applications we can’t even
imagine yet. You might have noticed today that I mostly
referred to genetic engineering or tweaking, rather than ‘hacking’ something’s DNA,
and while these terms are synonymous I avoided that because I suspect that involuntarily
or covert alterations to other people’s genes or infecting them with some equivalent
of cybernetic or biological malware will be something we’ll have to deal with in decades
to come, and I’m betting that will be the term that gets used, ‘genetic hacking’. Pretty terrifying notion, we already warn
people all the time not to use their laptop or other devices on public networks without
taking precautious like a VPN, and the genetic equivalent would be more like a flu that you
could pick up in public that rewired your DNA, the flu and other viruses also being
a big concern these days with the Coronavirus added to the mix. It’s a bit interesting that we adapted medical
terms to computer terms and might well adapt them right back to biology in an upcoming
era of genetic alteration and hacking, but for the moment we do have those computer viruses
and malware to worry about so I can’t stress that point of a moment ago enough, don’t
use public networks unless you’re running a VPN, virtual private network on your device. If you’re looking for a good VPN, I’d
recommend Dashlane. It has over 11 million users including myself
and I love that I can use it on all my devices seamlessly. It also has a ton of other features like a
password manager that only you have access to, even Dashlane can’t see your passwords
or data nor do they store them themselves, unlike a lot of other sign-on solutions where
it can get misused so they can make money off it by selling your data or hitting you
with annoying ads. So you get a VPN but also tons of other great
features like one-click logins, autofill for personal info and payment details, high but
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‘IsaacArthur’ at checkout for a 10% off discount. So next week we’ll be back to the Fermi
Paradox series for a look at the Zoo Hypothesis, the concept that we might not see aliens not
because they hide from us and the rest of universe, but rather because they hide us
from being able to see them or even maybe the real universe. The week after that we’ll return to the
Outward Bound Series for Industrial Belts in Space, and see how the development of the
solar system might unfold as our production and infrastructure develop on places like
the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and even the Sun itself. For alerts when those and other episodes come
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17 thoughts on “DNA Manipulation in Living Subjects

  1. Enhanced bodies and minds might be the latest thing for the rich. BUT. Cars were once just for the really rich. When they came to common use it was said the horse would be extinct in 100 years. I'm that time there were more than before.
    TV. A toy for the rich. That's what my parents said. They got one later.
    Likewise personal enhancement.

  2. “Probably one of the best known traits of smart people is the tendency to want to make other people smarter.”

    I can’t help but find this relatable. I love telling people random facts or talking about something I know a lot about.

  3. 10:07 there is an advantage in the short-term to keeping people unhealthy. If universal healthcare were implemented it would be a great loss of profit to insurance companies and for-profit health providers. Drug companies losing the ability to negotiate higher prices from the government for their medications would also lose money

  4. Ahh youtube hypocrisy, its ok to show men topless but females…..we need to stop being bothered by our bodies.

  5. I want to scream at stupid people all the time, while driving. Turn signals not being used is a thing most people just do not do. Not being on ones phone, eating and putting on makeup IS NOT WHAT A DRIVER SHOULD EVER BE DOING. These simple things to keep the roads safe are things some people think do not apply to them. We should be able to turn in our video from our cars dash cams into the police and get these people fined and thrown in jail for. Heck since these people do not care for their safety and the safety of others, take their licences away for life.

  6. I'd love for genetic alterations to be publically available to the masses. As for consent, I wasn't asked if I wanted to be born and if I really hated my existence so much, as dark as it seems suicides do exist. I also never asked if I wanted autism, In all honesty, I would have loved to be born as an Adonis of the 20th century practically perfect in body and mind and would be perfectly fine with becoming a cyborg or going digital, as far as the ethic issues go you are going to have critics of everyone and everything that we do, the thing is we're already playing god by expanding our life expectancy using medicines like antibiotics and surgeries for ailments that would have killed us left untreated and we make that choice that we wanted to continue living as we make the choice whether or not to have a child. Unfortunately for the pro-life side of things, neither an embryo nor a fetus is capable of communicating their opinion nor understand what they want which is why the choice is up to the parent.

  7. On the ethical side of things, imagine if you could create dairy cows that would "naturally" lactate year round without the need the be kept either pregnant or freshly having given birth, or with the use of hormones. Think of all the male calves that wouldn't have to be disposed of. Really, this method would seem much more ethical to me.

  8. This is my goal in life. I'm already a medical student and I had my eyebrows raised at the title. It's going to be a long, expensive process before we can get anything done. Designer babies are a thing and it's imperative that we get this done ASAP so by the time designer babies grow up, we can reverse any changes they don't want.

  9. What exactly do you mean by:
    "We should expect to see this in probably, at most, two generations from now."?
    How many years/decades would that be?

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