The Squishy Sciences
Also stinky, and bitey, and often toxic… Biology and chemistry are not usually what come to mind when you start to talk about science fiction. But for me they are the most familiar sciences. I couldn’t calculate an orbital escape trajectory from Jupiter to save my life… But when someone on the book of face asks about CRISPR and why humans aren’t extinct yet, I can comment on that. And I plan to write about it, in time and when my life settles into something approaching routine. Might be a few months.
In the meantime, I will muse on a few topics that may be of interest to other writers. We do not yet have the ability to line-edit our genome. Or that of any other organism, for that matter. Using CRISPR/Cas9, we can knock out genes, we can use RNAi to knock genes down, and we can force genes/cells to overexpress, all of which are handy tools in the bioengineer’s lab. Add to that an attitude like one of my genetics professors, who was talking on this subject, bouncing around at the front of the lecture hall. He stopped, threw his hands out wide and proclaimed “I don’t care if it is right or wrong, it’s cool!”
We have mapped the entire human genome, true. However, the genome is not interchangeable with a gene. Genes make up a mere 1.5% of our genome, and frankly, we’re not clear on what the other 98.5% does. Most of it is non-coding, but that doesn’t mean that it’s useless. Stripping out all the ‘inert’ genomic material wouldn’t result in a more efficient organism, just a dead one. On top of this, we are still figuring out which genes do what. Genetic redundancy is fantastic for an organism, allowing them to survive a loss-of-function mutation, but it leaves the scientist tearing her hair out. In paper after paper I have read recently for molecular biology, researchers discuss how they knocked out a gene, but still the phenotype found a way around it. Wings, for instance. Wing development isn’t reliant on just one gene in most cases. Knocking out a specific gene trying to get a wingless critter might simply get you one with deformed wings. Or wings on the wrong thoracic segment. Or… No visible result at all.
Will editing our genes lead to the extinction of the human race? Not likely, except in some deranged Green’s wet dream. Will it change us? Could be. I do believe there have been plenty of stories about the human race becoming something ‘other’ than homo sapiens. I’m not going to say that will happen. For one thing, gene therapy may or may not be permanent. We are still trying to grasp epigenetics, the cell’s memory. Some traits are passed on, others aren’t. Some persist for generations, other fade in a few replications.
So much uncertainty. One thing I am sure of: someone, somewhere, will meddle, thinking they have a firm grasp, and they are going to find out the difference between grasping a nettle, and grabbing a jellyfish. John Ringo’s essay on the Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse is a must-read. My story on Zombie Maggots, written around the same time, also touches on the consequences of well-intentioned science gone very wrong (it’s available as part of the free eBook Twisted Mindflow on my site).
As for me? I’m not living in fear. Idiots we will always have with us, especially the morons who think we can breed for intelligence. We don’t fully grasp why people are ‘smart’, have trouble quantifying what ‘smart’ is, and remember that non-coding DNA? Well, the difference between a chimp and a man is less than 1% of the genome. But those differences, called Human Accelerated Regions (HARs), are located near neural development regions. Not in them, no, just near. What does this mean? We don’t know yet. I’m sure there are theories (I haven’t tried to find out) and I’m sure some fool will experiment trying to create a Superman. Which is where fiction comes in. Exploring the big questions. What if? What happens if this goes on?