Two new technologies may considerably improve the ability of scientists to modify human genetic material. This could have important medical applications, but also makes inheritable genetic modification significantly more feasible. Meanwhile, a cover story in one of the most popular magazines in the U.S. in effect encourages the idea of manipulating our genes, even as the basic science seems to become more complicated by the minute.
Scientists from the University of California, San Diego, have "developed an efficient way to genetically modify human embryonic stem cells." They used bacterial artificial chromosomes (BACs), modified to include copies of the genes of interest. The result is about a 20% success rate, far better than <0.5% efficiency they achieved with older insertion methods.
The research, published in Cell Stem Cell, is intended to make practical the development of in vitro disease models. However, it also potentially makes inheritable human genetic modification more practical, using a variant of the technique described here, replacing the viral vector with a more efficient BAC.
Another "New Way to Edit DNA" was recently described in the New York Times: the "zinc finger" technique. This uses existing proteins to splice material into DNA at a specific site. It's applicable for agricultural uses, and medical ones. Some scientists have thought for several years that this will revitalize gene therapy. But the Times article also speculates that the technique may "make technically possible a morally fraught procedure that has been merely a theoretical possibility -- the alteration of the human germ line."
Meanwhile Time has a cover story on Epigenetics. It's titled "Why Your DNA Isn't Your Destiny" but the top of the web page puts a different spin on it: "How You Can Change Your Genes, Destiny." The piece ends:
Now we can imagine a world in which we can tinker with DNA, bend it to our will. It will take geneticists and ethicists many years to work out all the implications, but be assured: the age of epigenetics has arrived.
This is a strange conclusion since the article stresses that "the Human Epigenome Project ... will make the Human Genome Project look like homework that 15th century kids did with an abacus." We may be able to "imagine" that world -- but we can equally imagine, as Huxley did, a dystopia of terrifying consequences.
Almost simultaneously, Nature published the discovery that the human Y chromosome is evolving at a much faster rate than expected. Nicholas Wade in the New York Times noted that "its furious innovation is likely to be having reverberations elsewhere in the human genome." Quite what those consequences might be remains unclear.
What seems to be happening is that genetic science is becoming ever more complex, even as genetic technologies are becoming more capable of making specific interventions. This is all the more reason to insist, as we have argued for years, that society should formally prohibit inheritable genetic modification.
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
Posted in Inheritable Genetic Modification, Media Coverage, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts
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Comment by john holland, Jan 15th, 2010 3:17pm
Transhumanists are slime you guys keep up the good fight to make sure they lose this war.