Soft Skills 2021
Breakthroughs in Biology and Their Impact on Our Future
The twentieth century was the time of physics: Einstein's Theory of Relativity, great explorations in the field of celestial bodies and tiny nanoparticles, the invention of computing machines. All these discoveries breathed new life into other sciences, especially biology: the DNA structure study by J.Watson, F.Crick, M.Wilkins, and R.Franklin, the international Human Genome Project, modern treatments, etc. All these findings would have been impossible without physics. Breakthroughs in physics allowed biology to explore the world of cells and molecules. Therefore, there is an opinion that the century is the time of biology: hundreds or thousands of biological experiments and investigations are conducted every day. These research projects require knowledge in different fields and the work of multidisciplinary teams.
Everybody knows that the human body consists of a countless number of cells, which, in turn, are composed of different molecules: proteins, fats, carbohydrates, water, etc. One of the main types is deoxyribonucleic acid, which is more commonly known as DNA. What makes it so special? DNA encodes the genetic instructions for life: eye color, growth, one's personality, propensity for diseases… Humans have been dreaming of superpowers, immortality, the ability to shape the future for themselves, and generations to come for thousands of years. Now it is almost a reality: people have learned to influence the phenotype (observable traits of an organism) by changing the genome (all DNA molecules in the body). This article gives an overview of the main directions in modern biology and medicine relating to artificial genome editing, its consequences, and the philosophical perception of these technologies.
First, it is interesting to observe genome editing in nature. DNA is just a physical molecule, therefore mutations (errors) may happen during its replication and transcription (copying). These mutations can lead to a phenotypic change. There are many examples of DNA transformation that cause harmful, neutral, or beneficial changes:
- Transposons are sequences of DNA that can move to new positions within the genome of a single cell. The multicolored kernels of corn present a good example of significant mutations resulting from the work of transposons.
- Immunity is one big mutation. When the body senses foreign substances (antigens: viruses and bacteria), its immune system works to recognize the antigens and get rid of them. The only way it can do this is to combine a mutated DNA and use it in practice. It is ineffective, at first glance, but that is how it works.
- Such a severe disease as cancer is triggered by genetic changes (inherited and acquired) too. These changes are often caused by radiation, tobacco use, poor diet, lack of physical activity, or excessive drinking of alcohol.
What is more, nature has learned how to deal with harmful mutations. Micro-animals tardigrades, known to everyone as water bears, can be found throughout the world (from deep oceans to high mountains and even outer space) and have become famous for their extremophilic abilities. Water bears can survive freezing, total dehydration, pressure, and radiation. Researchers have been trying to understand extremophiles' stress tolerance for a long time. Recently scientists have found out that tardigrades might have special proteins associated with the cell nucleus to effectively protect and repair DNA. That is how they can survive everywhere. And who knows, maybe one day it will be possible for people to repair their genome as effectively as tardigrades do it!
Now let’s discuss the useful and unusual molecular technologies and their impact on lives and minds.
The most popular way of using genome editing is genetically modified food. For instance, some Asian people are iron and vitamin deficient. Researchers recently have developed a new rice variety with increased levels of these components using genome editing. Another example is tomatoes with anthocyanins that are more nutritious and resistant to rotting. These tomatoes also come from the laboratory. All those genetically modified organisms have led to a significant decline in the incidence of diseases.
There are many stories about the benefits of GMOs in animal husbandry. For example, a Canadian company Enviropig has genetically modified pigs in such a way that their manure has become more environmentally friendly than usual: it contains less phosphorus which causes an increase of pathogenic bacteria.
Moreover, all these GM organisms are thoroughly checked to guarantee their high quality and safety.
The other way to use genome editing is pharmaceutical production. For instance, most of the insulin, which is essential for diabetics, is produced with the help of genetically modified microorganisms: the human insulin gene is transferred to the bacterial genome in such a way that these microorganisms can produce human insulin.
The third option is different and is related to the human genome. Mankind has been dreaming of creating a perfect human being for thousands of years. These days it is coming true.
Everybody carries a large number of genetic variations. Nowadays, there are plenty of services allowing people to get information about their genomes. It can be a whole-genome sequence or just a collection of single nucleotide polymorphisms (commonly abbreviated as SNPs, which mean differences between the genome of an exact person and general reference).
SNPs can be used to predict the likelihood of having some phenotypic traits, and, more importantly, the probability of diseases. This information may require actions — changes in lifestyle or even medical intervention.
One good example is the popular 23andMe DNA test kit, which can be used to learn information about one’s ancestors and predispositions to diseases by checking the specific regions of the genome for just 100 dollars! But the problems remain. Someone might just do not want to know, in some cases there can be some ethical issues involved (such as an unwanted adoption disclosure), sometimes information about an individual can reveal information about their relatives. Disclosed genetic information possibly might lead to increased insurance rates or affect a decision to give somebody a job. Despite these privacy issues, some people publish their data as open-source projects. They believe that their genomes will help scientists to gain insights into the human genome and then the benefits will outweigh the drawbacks.
What is more, it is possible to treat detected mutations. A new technology, called CRISPR/Cas9 (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats — specific bacterial DNA sequences), can help to delete and edit a particular region of DNA. Therefore, it is possible to treat genetic diseases (for instance, hemophilia that transmits from women by heredity in one specific gene). Its inventors are the Laureates of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The main difficulty is the genome size: human DNA is about three billion base pairs, though typically only one base pair has an error. This is the issue of genetic medicine. That is why nowadays the CRISPR/Cas9 technology is used cautiously: there is a chance not to help, but to harm.
We still have to consider the ethical and moral sides. Although all these genetic techniques seem to improve human lives and the environment, this issue is still a matter of public debate. The benefits are obvious: tastier and more nutritious food, disease- and drought-resistant plants, cheap medicine, an increased life expectancy, predicting diseases, and dealing with them. Despite its many advantages, several shortcomings make humans doubt whether they have a right to manipulate the laws of nature.
This question is explored in the film Gattaca that was written and directed by Andrew Niccol in 1997. The film depicts the world of the future. There is no racism, but genoism thrives: unethical and illegal genetic discrimination is everywhere. People know their destiny from birth. Who are they going to be? What are they going to do? When and how are they going to die? It is just a matter of one cheap and simple genetic test. And everything, including their job, salary, and the future of children, is predetermined. The film centers on the life of Vincent Freeman (played by Ethan Hawke), bearing a regular genome from birth. Due to this, there is no way for him to become a part of the privileged society: the only job he can do is being a cleaner. Despite all circumstances, he has a dream to become an astronaut and he makes it happen. The film focuses on Vincent’s hard life and love, with all their ups and downs.
Genoism seemed far-fetched for the average movie-goer in 1997. But today, this reality is closer than people may imagine. Gattaca is a thought-provoking film that makes viewers think about both sides of genetic modification: is it good to be able to manage everybody’s future? Because if Vincent were born nowadays, it would be easier for him to become an astronaut and make his life better.
In summary, technologies (including medicine and biology) do not stand still. Therefore, it is evident to everybody that irreversible changes in biology, medicine, and agriculture are going to happen over the next 20−30 years. This will undoubtedly have a favorable effect on our lifestyle, but people have to control it to make the future better and benefit from it.