New technologies have the potential to do good or evil

Yet another newcomer genetic technology is on the way, once again with the potential to change everything

We are still only scratching the surface when it comes to understanding what our DNA and its 24,000 genes are doing

We are still only scratching the surface when it comes to understanding what our DNA and its 24,000 genes are doing

 

Scientists sometimes hold the most remarkable powers in their hands in the application of new knowledge, particularly when it remains uncertain how this knowledge will be used.

We all know the familiar example of Albert Einstein and his little formula E=mc2 which managed to transmogrify into the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb.

Einstein certainly knew what the formula meant in terms of getting energy release from mass, but he probably had no idea of how the formula would represent a starting point for weaponry and for nuclear power.

Research undertakings on the scale of the Manhattan Project – $26 billion in today’s dollars – come up only occasionally.

One more recent example is the Human Genome Project, an international $3 billion effort to deliver the first full genome of a human. It provided the sequence of chemical steps within our DNA and at the time of the announcement in 2001 we were all set to cure disease, develop new kinds of medicines and vaccines and defeat cancer.

Hit the fast forward to today and we are still only scratching the surface when it comes to understanding what our DNA and its 24,000 genes are doing and how the whole thing works.

Labs across the globe were involved in the Genome Project, each sequencing its own share of the DNA. Amongst those pursuing this goal but from the private sector side was Craig Venter. He founded Celera Genomics, a company set up to accelerate the process of unravelling the genome, and he used a different technique that delivered more information about the genome using less time and much less money.

He also caused widespread controversy because he wanted to retain intellectual property control over genes discovered by his lab. This flew in the face of the “open access” and free-to-all approach to knowledge transfer adopted by the formal genome project.

Although Venter’s techniques came into use and he allowed access to DNA discoveries from then on he was viewed as something of a swashbuckler in the way he pursued his science.

He also remained controversial. Six years ago Venter declared he had created “artificial life”, building up the DNA and the 1,000 genes of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides. He called his creation Synthia 1.0, but in fact it wasn’t a true creation as he copied the M mycoides genome. Even so, it created quite a stir and demonstrated intent.

Venter delivered on that late last month, introducing his latest creation, Synthia 3.0, a newcomer that may ultimately join the top table and sit with the Manhattan or the Genome projects.

One again he used the M mycoides bacterium as a template but this time he whittled the total genes down to just 473, declaring this to be the smallest genome possible to sustain a living organism and therefore the most basic form of life on Earth.

Once again we were told that this new technology could be used to cure disease, speed up vaccine development, clean up pollution and even undertake massive carbon-dioxide uptake.

Venter describes Synthia 3.0 as the start of a new era, a period which will see the creation of purpose-built artificial life.

Lobby groups such as Friends of the Earth are opposed to its unbridled development given the risks involved should a manufactured bacterium escape and trigger a plague.

This returns us to the issue of scientists involved in society-changing technologies with huge potential to do good or ill depending on who holds them. This is not to say that the creation of “synthetic biology” such as Synthia is inherently bad, it is just that we cannot yet see how this emerging technology will be employed.

And yet another newcomer genetic technology is on the way, once again with the potential to change everything we know about treating diseases and correcting the genetic mutations that cause them. And unlike those that came before, it won’t take billions to make these changes happen.

Scientists around the world are beginning to use “Crispr – Cas9” a completely new way to edit genomes, any genomes. Companies have raced ahead and are already selling bits of modified DNA for various purposes.

It is very cheap and easy to use and while it could be used to cure disease, it could also in time be used give your child blond hair or blue eyes or to be two metres tall.

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