The process of evolution from a single-cell organism to intelligent humans exploring the moon is an amazing feat of nature, but it’s not over. Over millions of years, we’ve slowly evolved into Homo Sapiens through luck, timing, and a bit of genetic chaos. 

To put this luck and chaos into perspective, about 150,000 years ago our ancestors were extremely close to absolute extension… And when I say close, I mean there were roughly 600 of us left on the southern tip of Africa. By sheer will and luck, we happened to thrive turning into Earth’s dominant species. 

Today, most of us like to think that we’ve finished our evolutionary journey and this is where the tree ends, but that’s far from the truth… Our understanding of what makes someone “human” will change more in the next couple of decades, then it has ever changed in the past. These changes won’t happen through evolutions luck, timing, and chaos, but through human ingenuity and rapidly changing technology.  

This week we dove into the world of biotechnology, specifically genetic engineering… And our book of choice was “Hacking Darwin”. 

Most of the social circles I’m in are oblivious to the rapidly evolving world of biology (including myself). New tools like CRISPR-Cas9 are fundamentally changing how we interact with nature, allowing us to program biology like we program computers. Instead of just changing 1’s and 0’s in computers, we’re changing A’s, C’s, T’s, and G’s – The genetic program for all life. 

Designer Babies 

The idea of designing a baby to your exact specifications sounds Sci-Fi, but as our understanding of genetics and technology evolve this scenario will become more real every day. 

To my surprise, we’re already living in a world where we’re able to give our future children the best chance at a happy and healthy life through in vitro fertilization (IVF). At a high-level, this process seems pretty straight forward… 

  1. The doctor extracts the eggs from a woman
  2. The eggs fertilized with sperm turning into an embryo 
  3. The embryo is examined for any genetically inherited diseases
  4. Then the embryo with the highest probability for a healthy life is implanted back into the women, while the remaining embryo are frozen for future use

This is the traditional IVF process and has been around for a few decades, but is still extremely useful for many couples. Heterosexual couples (boy/girl) that are unable to reproduce through sex or have genetic diseases that could be passed onto their children use IVF often. Another large community that uses IVF is the LGBTQ community. 

Like any new technology, this process is hotly debated in many different groups, but it’s slowly catching on across the world. This method is actually old school and there are newer methods of going through this IVF process that completely made my mind melt… 

Imagine… Instead of pulling the eggs from the women’s ovaries, which I’m assuming isn’t very enjoyable, you’re able to use their blood instead! Crazy I know. 

The trick is to take existing mature cells (e.g. blood cells) and turn them back into “stem cells”, basically going back in time. Think of stem cells like yeast for bread, everything “stems” from this single cell. 

Here’s a short fictional dialogue from the book that sums up what this process could look like in the future (2045ish). 

“let’s get down to it. Your blood sample arrived safely a week ago. We spun your blood in a centrifuge to extract the cells we needed, then reprogrammed them into the stem cells we used to create the egg precursor cells and then your eggs. We decided to fertilize a thousand of your eggs, but then machine sorted those thousand down to the hundred we grew into six-day-old embryos. We then extracted five cells from each of these blastocysts for sequencing and the result is—”

There’s an endless list of benefits that come with this new IVF process, but the one that stood out to me most is options. When traditionally going through IVF each woman is limited to the number of eggs she’s able to produce, which on average is 400, limiting their options. But! With this new process, a woman could have 100,000’s of eggs to be fertilized and analyzed for genetic diseases. 

Think about it… The more options we have, the higher probability our children will have of avoiding any deadly or life-altering genetic diseases. 

I would be surprised if this doesn’t eventually become the new social norm for society. In a world where you’re able to remove the majority of the risk that comes with traditional reproduction and create healthier/happier children, why wouldn’t you? 

From choice, to change

Having more choice is nice and over time we’ll be able to perfect this IVF process, but there’s more… 

The next phase of this genetic revolution is moving from having an abundance of options to creating exactly what you want via gene editing. The first phase of this will come in the form of “embryo mating”, but the second phase will be the direct editing of specific genetics.

Embryo mating sounds super strange and that’s because it is. I found out about this idea through a paper published by Nick Bostrom and Carl Shulman

Simply put – Embryo mating is like Tinder for the embryo. The scenario here is that you create multiple eggs, fertilize them all, then select for the ones with the genes that increase IQ. Once you’ve picked the best, you then mate that embryo with another high IQ embryo, until you’ve done this multiple times… In their paper, five generations of embryo mating would come out to a 65 point increase in IQ, but ten generations come out to a 100 point increase. 

Imagine in the near-term future where you’re given the choice to increase your child’s chances of being a super-genius by just mating a few embryones?! 

The second phase is direct edits to the genome, which is the ultimate future for this world genetics. 

In the far future, hopefully, we’ll have tools that help us pinpoint the exact genes that cause certain diseases, increase IQ, physical health, personality traits, and emotional wellbeing. In this future world, we’ll not only be able to edit the genomes of our future children, but we’ll be able to edit ourselves. Creating future humans that live forever (like this jellyfish),  with super intelligence, strength, and empathy… 

It sounds silly and Sci-fi, but there are tons of governments and private institutions investing billions into this future. One project that’s personally exciting is preparing humans for long-term space travel – Christopher Mason is working with NASA to pull together a 500-year plan to genetically modify humans, so they’re capable of space travel, avoiding radiation and bone decay.

If you don’t believe that this is happening, I came across a paper published this week (April – 2020) speaking about researchers modifying the genetics of a plant, so it glows throughout the entire lifecycle. 

Competitive by nature

Sadly, we humans tend to default towards competitive behavior, so there’s a major concern around how this genetic race could end in catastrophe. 

As gene editing tools get cheaper, easier to use, and widely adopted, more biohackers and rogue nations will get ahold of this technology… Possibly leading to perfectly crafted killer viruses. A more practically pressing issue in genetics is the disagreement among leading biotech countries (China and U.S.).

If one country believes genetically modifying humans is unethical, but another see’s it as an advantage, there’s inevitably going to be a race… So it’s on us to educate local, national, and international regulators about the importance of putting in place a global committee regulating this development. Something similar to the “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons” – Even though this treaty isn’t perfect it’s prevented us from falling into a complete nuclear war, so I’m sure we could take a few lessons from this. 

If you’re interested in learning more about this genetic revolution and its potential impact on humanity, I’d recommend giving this book a shot. 

Until next time my fellow wanderers! 😉