This article first appeared in the Virginia Journal of Bioethics
What if the code that your computer runs on could be modified by the software itself? In computer science, this concept is known as a strange loop, and it allows programs to adapt, react, and mutate. A computer virus that is outfitted with a well-written strange loop can modify itself so that it and its progeny look nothing alike. This disjunction between virus generations allows the program to both evade antivirus software and delay any patches to the host machine that could remove the vulnerability it exploited. Such a scenario mirrors an immune system, with analogous host, viral invader, and defense system. Parallels like these between biological and computer systems are seen throughout both fields.
All organisms are running an operating system coded in DNA. Upon encountering some lactose, a bacterium creates the necessary enzymes with its lac operon, RNA polymerase, and ribosomes. Rather than being written in Java or C++, an organism’s programs (aka proteins and RNA) are compiled from DNA. In fact, you yourself are a DNA computer! No mind has written your source code; only the slow and omnipresent hand of evolution can claim to be your author. This won’t be the case for long. Recent advancements1 have given humanity the power to wield strange loops not only on digital computers, but on DNA computers as well (Alberstein, 2016). Humans have actually been genetic engineers for millennia. You only need look at your pet (if you own a dog) or your pantry (if you have any bananas) for proof. But because of sharp decreases in the length of time, cost, and failure rate of gene editing, the nature of gene editing has fundamentally changed. By co-opting a prokaryotic defense mechanism, scientists have created the equivalent of molecular scissors. Now, any enterprising undergrad in a lab has access to a quick, cheap, and precise DNA editor.
Just as programmers’ capabilities are expanded by the utilization of strange loops, gene modification opens an array of possible applications for biologists. Potentially every genetic disease is susceptible to gene therapy. An improved version of molecular scissors, CRISPR/Cas92, is being evaluated as a treatment for muscular dystrophy and has seen success in mice (Yuxuan, 2014). In addition, both American3 and Chinese4 scientists are using CRISPR to better arm immune systems against cancer. Inevitably, the accuracy and safety of these techniques will improve (Reardon, 2016). When gene therapy is safe, reliable, and effective, humans will begin to reach into their own source code and start making changes.
While this all seems ethically clear, these therapies only target individuals. But if modifications to the gametes of a patient are made, these edits will persist into the next generation and onwards. These changes won’t die when the edited individual dies, they will be passed down to their children. Eventually, edited genes could become a significant proportion of the gene pool. In other words, we will soon be able to change what it means to be human. Proposals to profoundly alter humanity are often met with scorn and aversion - and rightfully so. We need to tread carefully. Tampering with genes can have, if not Cronenberg-esque results, dire consequences. What we cannot do is impose a ban on gene editing technology. We must embrace our strange loops. It would be futile to legislate a prohibition against gene editing. Even if your government forbade such experiments, there are other less scrupulous governments elsewhere.
Humans have become the dominant lifeform on planet Earth as a result of a very small number of skills. We are neither the fastest, nor the strongest, nor the most agile. 71% of our planet’s surface area is submerged under water and is inhospitable to us. At less than a mile above sea level, most of us will begin to experience altitude sickness. If our internal body temperature strays outside of a narrow band of 60º F, death is unavoidable. 5 Humans are not adapted to live in a wide variety of domains, even on the planet that we evolved on. Right now our tools are crude, but given time, modifying humans to be better suited to hostile environments will be within our power.
Gene editing technology is in its infancy. And yet when the first computers were built, they took up entire rooms and could perform 5000 operations per second. Now the phone in my pocket has four CPUs (Central Processing Units) that can each perform 1.5 billion operations per second. Even so, over a decade before the first electronic computer was built, Alan Turing6 was able to see the shape of things to come (Turing, 1938). We must not wait for gene editing to mature before we craft a plan for its use - that would both squander its potential and risk damaging the entire human race.
Alberstein, Sarah. “CRISPR/CAS9: The Ethics of Implementation.” Grounds1, no. 1 (August 4, 2016): 23–26. Accessed October 27, 2016. https://issuu.com/vabioethics/docs/vol._1__iss._1_final/25?e=25502905/37662926.↩︎
Yuxuan Wu et al., “Cell Research - Abstract of Article: Correction of a Genetic Disease by CRISPR-Cas9-Mediated Gene Editing in Mouse Spermatogonial Stem Cells,” Nature 25, no. 1 (December 5, 2014), accessed October 27, 2016, doi:10.1038/cr.2014.160, http://www.nature.com/cr/journal/v25/n1/full/cr2014160a.html.↩︎
Reardon, Sara. “First CRISPR Clinical Trial Gets Green Light from US Panel.” Nature June 22, 2016,. Accessed October 27, 2016. doi:10.1038/nature.2016.20137. http://www.nature.com/news/first-crispr-clinical-trial-gets-green-light-from-us-panel-1.20137.↩︎
Cyranoski, David. “Chinese Scientists to Pioneer First Human CRISPR Trial.” Nature 535, no. 7613 (July 21, 2016): 476. Accessed October 27, 2016. doi:10.1038/nature.2016.20302. http://www.nature.com/news/chinese-scientists-to-pioneer-first-human-crispr-trial-1.20302.↩︎
Wolchover, Natalie. “What Are the Limits of Human Survival?” August 12, 2012. Accessed October 27, 2016. http://www.livescience.com/34128-limits-human-survival.html.↩︎
Turing, A. M. “On Computable Numbers.” Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society s2-43, no. 6 (January 1, 1938): 544–46. doi:10.1112/plms/s2-43.6.544.↩︎