To borrow from the Wu-Tang wisdom bank, code rules everything around us, and technology has finally broken the seal on messing with the most fascinating code of all: our genes. We’ve already got the economic foundation for a whole industry centered on commercial gene manipulation so that scientists can play Farmville with our DNA. Over the last week, biogenetics has been linked to everything from procrastination to poverty. Playing with genes, it seems, is our favorite new future-thing next to virtual reality and feckless nouncoinery. It could also ensure humanity’s survival against increasingly daunting environmental and sociopolitical odds – after all, we all helped to make this shitty bed, and now we must all lie in it. We want to address social disorders and quirks in the name of a greater good but what kind of toll does this have on the individual mind? Taking a long view is even more frightening, because future projections of a designer-gene world have already been cruelly romanticized in Hollywood films and bestselling novels. Toying with biology is fun until someone gets an eye out, after which a self-evolving generation of cyclopean cyborgs will drive humanity into the ground. Science fiction has long explored the correlation between technological progress – networked life in all its invasive glory – and a rise in mental stress as we’re given more options, more microcontrol. Indeed, higher standards of living come with expectations of better performances in personal and professional life, as technology endows us the ability to multitask and just…be better. Dazed examines the potential ways in which we could eventually reprogram our genetic code.
After seven years, the world’s first “designer chromosome” has been birthed in brewer’s yeast, signaling the end of genetically imperfect lepers a la Gattaca. Our brutish human eyes thank you, Science, for making unnecessary cosmetic alterations even easier in the future. In Dr. Jef Boeke’s words: “"It is the most extensively altered chromosome ever built. But the milestone that really counts is integrating it into a living yeast cell. We have shown that yeast cells carrying this synthetic chromosome are remarkably normal. They behave almost identically to wild yeast cells, only they now possess new capabilities and can do things that wild yeast cannot." The synthetic yeast, named synIII, could be used to stack the “genomic deck” in our favor, whether it be cultivating higher alcohol tolerance levels (in humans, yeasts and other things), or developing better biofuels.
Designer babies aren’t new news because we’ve been talking about them “realistically” for a fair few years; of course, the concept of bespoke offspring has been tossed around fiction for decades, but only now are we really seeing a significant thaw in social acceptance. One hot-topic instance of designer gene screening is mitochondrial manipulation, an assisted reproduction technique that could prevent rare medical conditions. It also involves three people. In a paper written for Science, T.H. Murray describes us as being in “the genomic era,” where emerging reproductive tech has to perform an excruciatingly delicate dance around abortion and traditional Western values in order to succeed. Splicing and dicing all sounds fun and wild in theory, but in reality, the products of these experiments are very much flesh-and-blood humans with very real repercussions. However, this whole “genomic era” business is also a fresh opportunity to re-examine graying populations in technologically advanced countries (hey, Japan) where customized baby options could prompt a belated rumspringa for an artificially chaste generation. Too bad there’s a thing called ethics.
BIG PHARMA MEETS BIG DATA
The aptly-named PatientsLikeMe network provides people with a real-time platform to discuss chronic illnesses such as fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis. Genentech, a massive biotech/drug company, just signed a landmark five-year deal with PatientsLikeMe to create a symbiotic research partnership focused on improving the eponymous patients’ healthcare experience. This all sounds absolutely splendid until you remember that we’re living in an age where the infosec world is soiling itself over #heartbleed while us normal peasants continue to make heartbleed jokes online because it is simply impossible to have good banter about egregious internet flaws offline. TL;DR – the idea of a massive pharmaceutical company pairing up with a patient-centric social network sounds really noble on the outset, but considering the insatiable nature of data crime, this could take the concept of genetic theft to horrifying new heights.
These are pretty much exactly what they sound like – tiny nanocages made of DNA that eventually could “enclose their contents, packaging drugs for delivery to tissues. And, like a roomy closet, the cages could be modified with chemical hooks on which to hang components such as proteins or gold nanoparticles.” Components sound pretty boring, but here ‘components’ includes “tiny power plants, miniscule factories that produce specialty chemicals, or high-sensitivity photonic sensors…” which sounds like a transhumanist’s dream diary. It’s all kosher for now, though – we’d have to bypass years to get a better picture of how these nanostructures could be used in illegal medical operations or ethically murky body hacks.
Okay, so Yerevan isn’t exactly known as a hotbed of genetically enhanced supersoldiery, but there’s no time like the present, right? A recent article by Vice suggested that Armenia’s mandatory chess program might give the tiny country an edge over the vast, insatiable maw of China, as the latter embarks on a quest to create “genius babies.” Kids in Armenian schools are required to learn and play chess in third and fourth grade, which educators universally believe is a natural method of enhancing intelligence and racking up IQ points. The key here is that chess is being used as a low-tech alternative to pricey curriculum reform and new technology, as it offers kids a time-tested realm in which to practice leadership and experience defeat.
We’re not completely sure what the takeaway is here, but a new study by the University of Liverpool is backpedaling on the claim that Chinese people’s eye movements are neurologically wired to Chinese race/culture. Scientists studied saccadic eye movements among three different ethnicities (mainland Chinese, British people with Chinese parents, and white British) and concluded that ethnic Chinese people had quicker eye movements. Of course, this is the sort of leftfield oddball research could offer invaluable insight into racial responses to trauma and optic diseases, but thanks to the jaded taint of millennial overthinking, right now it smells pseudo-eugenic.
In a cruel move to destroy writers everywhere, science seems to suggest that procrastination and impulsivity are “genetically linked.” Researchers tested pairs of twins to examine how impulsivity could have given us an evolutionary edge over other cavepeople, while procrastination might be a “modern phenomenon, since we focus on long-term goals, from which we can easily get distracted.” If so, synthesizing an appropriate antidote to excessive amounts of either behavior could be in the works.
Apparently a fondness for amphetamine points to genetic resilience against conditions such as ADHD and schizophrenia. Small genetic tweaks could be standard for new humans in the future, as our withering attention spans continue to ball up into Nicholas Carr’s knowing hands. Today, it’s almost impossible for me to solo-task while working, and though I can recall adult years when I could fully focus on a task for several uninterrupted hours, the memories are like having an out-of-body experience. Today it is arguably more challenging for an average child to do one thing for more than an hour, and with entertainment devices getting smaller and more invasive, attention spans are only going to get worse. Could small, time-release doses of amphetamine, housed in aforementioned tiny DNA cages, be the answer to molding a more mentally stable future? Am I already screwed? A government-backed drug program isn’t a pleasant vision for the future, but on the upside, if my body doesn’t produce the ideal euphoric response to mandatory speed, maybe I’ll be too distracted and schizophrenic to care.
"Harsh world makes kids’ chromosomes look middle-aged" is top contender for the most heartachingly depressing headline ever written, which will hopefully invite attentive, altruistic technology gods to descend upon this problem with research grants and programs. Researchers discovered that “a particular combination of genes seems to make children flourish in nurturing environments but suffer in harsh environments.” The variables examined in the study are fascinating combinations of socioeconomic factors and personal mishaps, but by the age of 9 years old, a child in drastic, stressful circumstances could exhibit the drastically shortened telomeres (caps on the end of chromosomes) of someone decades older. It’s like science just gave a special gift to class warfare, which is an undying specter even in the quasi-egalitarian era of internet and maker culture.
As we continue to play god on this gloriously dysfunctional petri dish of a home, perhaps the equivalent of biological browser extensions and add-ons will become necessary to insulate ourselves from toxic nanoparticles. These are engineered nanoparticles used in tons of commercial products – sunscreen, clothes, toothpaste, toys, cosmetics, and so on – and differ in effect and potency; “due to their immensely small size, these materials may exhibit different physical, chemical, and biological properties, and penetate cells more easily.” Some of these can even alter DNA. One day, when everything is drenched in unknown, unquantifiable toxic nanomaterial, hapless consumers can only protect themselves via the biotech equivalent of an antivirus program that monitors sanctioned chemicals. We just hope the renewal/subscription processes aren’t half as awful as they is today.
Follow Alexis Ong on Twitter here @steppinlazer