For nearly the past decade, the tool known as CRISPR has been sweeping the scientific world. The acronym stands for a process I won’t attempt to explain, suffice it to say it does its job with enough precision that the tiniest genetic sequences can be removed, inserted, or mutated into the desired combinations. The implications are stark, with all of the globe’s premier biochemists and microbiologists now in an arms race to find the best techniques and solutions for using the method.
CRISPR arrived on the scene in roughly 1993 and began its foray into gene editing at some of the largest and most well-funded laboratories. China, in particular, was the first to use the method on macaque monkey primates, creating what they called mutant founders. It didn’t take long for the emerging superpower to aim its interest towards human embryos. Although it’s unlikely human subjects were brought to term during this period, only a few years later did rogue genetic engineer He Jiankui make such a claim. While framing his research as genetic surgery, his ethical argument pivoted on the unavailability of vaccines or cures for HIV. Thus his targeting of the CCR5 gene, known to aid immunosuppressive viruses, could be seen as a sound intervention. However, problems lie in the sheer complexity of biology itself.
For all of known existence, organic life had its genetic material randomly mutated. Only under selective pressures do some of these mutations find their way down the germline, to other generations in other conditions that may or may not apply the same pressures. Our crude understanding of this process is called biological evolution. Evolution sometimes takes millions of years, going through millions of mutations. Other times only a few generations can bring changes necessary to produce complete speciation of one form of life to another. CRISPR can conceivably do all of this in the matter of an instant.
The CRISPR revolution is astounding in relative terms. Never before has life had the capability of editing its genetic instructions. Additionally, never has a known organism had access to such incredible computational power. In a 1965 paper by Gordon Moore, who co-founded one of the first commercial transistor companies and later led the microprocessing manufacturer Intel, it was predicted that every few years computational power would double. He was right. For the past fifty some-odd years chips have gotten faster, smaller, and more efficient. Now anyone can put the equivalent of a Cray-2 supercomputer on their wrist, not to simulate nuclear warfare but alert them when their lasagna is ready. This incredible leap in data processing is now finding its way into genetics.
The cost of sequencing an entire human genome stands in the ballpark of $1,300. Some estimates are higher or lower depending on the method used. The critical thing to remember is the cost per megabyte (MB), which is falling to less than 1 cent per MB. Four years ago, it was 4 cents per MB. You can imagine where this is going. Conceivably in the next ten years, the same cost dynamics will have occurred bringing down commercial prices for an entire genomic sequence to near $50 — a paycheck period’s worth of Starbucks venti caramel macchiatos. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that the ubiquity of cheap genomic tests will most likely lead to their inclusion in hospital pregnancy fees. What parent wouldn’t want at least some insights into the health risk profile of their newborn? The list of diseases newly being discovered and added to those already known is extensive; why not head-off possible healthcare costs by addressing them early and often? But there is another aspect to this data avalanche that will aid in CRISPR accuracy, involving nascent discoveries in genetic interactiveness.
Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) are applications taking advantage of increasing data and processing speeds. Given a large population of sequenced genomic profiles, professionals begin to understand the relationships between specific genes relative to other genes, including groups of genes. As of this month, close to four-thousand studies have been completed, accounting for one-hundred and thirty-eight thousand associative genetic properties. Everything from psychiatric conditions to osteoporosis, hypertension to even waist-hip ratio, all are subject to extensive computation. Even more, machine-learning algorithms are now finding their way into bioinformatics. The same sorts of efficiencies allowing Tesla Motors to drive around town autonomously are now identifying probabilities for heart disease and alcoholism. Most GWAS studies are limited only by completed and partial genetic samples, which can be expensive. By the end of the next decade there will be no barrier to investigations of genetic populations the size of small countries, with accuracy rates and probability metrics matching that of biometric identifiers like iris scanning and fingerprint matching. No longer will medical professionals guess the age you will most likely naturally pass away, they’ll know within several months if not weeks.
GWAS data discovery is pivotal to CRISPR tooling’s success as a legitimate medical intervention. But dark clouds are forming over the field. Only several days ago did Russian microbiologist Denis Rebrikov reveal his plans for replicating the widely condemned procedure carried out by He Jiankui. In the former Soviet state, there are hundreds of thousands of HIV-positive women, of which several dozen do not respond to antiretrovirals. Rebrikov intends to target the CCR5 gene again, giving these potential mothers the safety of mind knowing their children will not inherit the virus through pregnancy. What makes this story perhaps even wilder is that Rebrikov has no intention of limiting his therapies to CCR5, but is prepared to offer his CRISPR solution to heritabilities including dwarfism, deafness, and blindness. In an interview days ago with Science Magazine’s Jon Cohen, he went even further when saying that enhancements such as running speed, IQ, and eye color would no longer stay within the realm of “divine providence,” that even those who believe such attributes would remain immutable are “lairs or stupid.”
China is no stranger to researching mutable characteristics. Just as they had mutated primates before with CRISPR, they’ve since transferred specific human genes to macaques, claiming to have significantly increased intelligence evaluations. Even Jiankui’s work may have raised the intelligence of the twins subjected to the operation. Work by Neurobiologist Alcino Silva in a 2016 study of CCR5 found that its suppression led to increased learning capacities and memory functioning in mice. Rumors suggest Jiankui was aiming to enhance human intelligence under the mask of preventing viral infections. Because the research is so new, and neither data nor studies can conclusively determine any side-effects at present, the only ethical way of going forward would be imposing international constraints. But nothing is never that easy.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and with the slow rise of China, the United States has freely imposed its will on the global community. Everything from how the World Bank qualifies loans to the World Trade Organization, nothing is committed-to without US involvement. But over the last few years, perhaps since the election of Trump and his nationalist campaign, countries like Russia and China have formed stronger relationships. Seven in ten Americans view Russia unfavorably, which is mutually shared by Russians. In comparison, overwhelming majorities of both Russians and Chinese like each other quite a lot. We are not only entering a world where machine-aided genetic decoding is becoming popularized, but also diminishing American influence. These two former and rising superpowers view genetic engineering not as an ethical quandary, but a competitive advantage against eroding Western dominance.
As we move into a new decade of advances in computational capacity, rising repositories of genomic data and genetic tooling will change common understandings of biology. For over a century, Western humanism has tried to grapple with two world wars that decimated Europe and forced the West to evaluate what it means to be different. Race relations, multiculturalism, including acceptance of all walks of life, sexualities, religions, and ethnicities has dominated both politics and culture. However, that is a distinct cultural mode unto itself and is not a universalism shared by large parts of the East. They, of course, integrate some elements of this ethos but far and wide are unwilling to accept tenets seen as only inept solutions to an overall chronic Western pathology. China nor Russia will feign opportunities to enhance their populations if and when desired. Neither will they abdicate innovations in genetic engineering to Western universities. They are marking territory and moving ahead at full scale, giving their institutions full reign to find enhancements when and where they occur. We can only pray they will incorporate the same ethical rules that have guided science to this point, but something tells me we’ve entered a brave new world.