Everyone at the Napa meeting had access to a gene-editing technique called Crispr-Cas9. The first term is an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” a description of the genetic basis of the method; Cas9 is the name of a protein that makes it work. Technical details aside, Crispr-Cas9 makes it easy, cheap, and fast to move genes around—any genes, in any living thing, from bacteria to people. ... Using the three-year-old technique, researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS. Agronomists have rendered wheat invulnerable to killer fungi like powdery mildew, hinting at engineered staple crops that can feed a population of 9 billion on an ever-warmer planet. Bioengineers have used Crispr to alter the DNA of yeast so that it consumes plant matter and excretes ethanol, promising an end to reliance on petrochemicals. Startups devoted to Crispr have launched. International pharmaceutical and agricultural companies have spun up Crispr R&D. Two of the most powerful universities in the US are engaged in a vicious war over the basic patent. Depending on what kind of person you are, Crispr makes you see a gleaming world of the future, a Nobel medallion, or dollar signs. ... It brings with it all-new rules for the practice of research in the life sciences. But no one knows what the rules are—or who will be the first to break them. ... As it happened, the people who found it weren't genome engineers at all. They were basic researchers, trying to unravel the origin of life by sequencing the genomes of ancient bacteria and microbes called Archaea (as in archaic), descendants of the first life on Earth. Deep amid the bases, the As, Ts, Gs, and Cs that made up those DNA sequences, microbiologists noticed recurring segments that were the same back to front and front to back—palindromes. The researchers didn't know what these segments did, but they knew they were weird. In a branding exercise only scientists could love, they named these clusters of repeating palindromes Crispr. ... Pick your creature, pick your gene, and you can bet someone somewhere is giving it a go.
Human genomics is just the beginning: the Earth has 50 billion tons of DNA. What happens when we have the entire biocode? ... By 2020, many hospitals will have genomic medicine departments, designing medical therapies based on your personal genetic constitution. Gene sequencers – machines that can take a blood sample and reel off your entire genetic blueprint – will shrink below the size of USB drives. Supermarkets will have shelves of home DNA tests, perhaps nestled between the cosmetics and medicines, for everything from whether your baby will be good at sports to the breed of cat you just adopted, to whether your kitchen counter harbours enough ‘good bacteria’. We will all know someone who has had their genome probed for medical reasons, perhaps even ourselves. Personal DNA stories – including the quality of the bugs in your gut– will be the stuff of cocktail party chitchat. ... Due to satellite imaging, we can see the entire surface of our planet. There can be no undiscovered land masses. The map of the world is complete. And we should expect the same thing for genetics. DNA testing will become so pervasive it will transform the medical, legal and social foundations of society. If blanket genome sequencing takes off, it will be impossible to obscure human relationships or ignore the content of our DNA. ... One of the greatest achievements of the coming century will be the characterisation of the Biocode, not just as a list of genomes of different species, but as patterns of interacting communities. ... By 2050 we should aim to finally have a handle not only on human genetic diversity but on the biodiversity of the planet.
As the eugenic movement peaked and crashed, advances in reproductive technology made designer babies thrillingly, frighteningly possible. In the 1920s and early ’30s, visionaries imagined divorcing love and even marriage from procreation. Reproduction could be done scientifically, rationally, in a test tube. For optimists such as the biologist J B S Haldane, such ‘ectogenesis’ would permit humans to take the reins of their own evolution, eliminating disease and mutation, and perhaps enhancing qualities such as intelligence, kindness and strength of character. ... The development of molecular biology in the 1950s and ’60s transformed genes from abstractions into hard chemicals. Suddenly, scientists understood basically what a gene was. They thought they understood what a human was. ... By the mid-1980s, enthusiasts were discussing ‘genetic surgery’. The idea was to treat genetic disease by inserting a therapeutic gene into a modified virus and then ‘infect’ the patient; the virus would do the tricky part of inserting the gene into the chromosome. Through the 1990s, gene therapy was hyped almost as hard as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), the new technology for ‘editing’ genes, is today. ... in terms of bringing us closer to a science-fiction world of intelligently designing our children – utopia or dystopia, take your pick – gene editing is more precise than accurate. The qualities we want in a child or in society can’t be had by tweaking a few nucleotides. There are no short cuts. To think otherwise is to conflate power with knowledge, to overestimate our understanding of biology, and to overestimate the role of genes in determining who we are.
A. gambiae has been called the world’s most dangerous animal, although strictly speaking that applies only to the female of the species, which does the bloodsucking and harms only indirectly. Its bite is a minor nuisance, unless it happens to convey the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, for which it is a primary human vector. Although a huge international effort has cut malaria mortality by about half since 2000, the World Health Organization still estimates there were more than 400,000 fatal cases in 2015, primarily in Africa. Children are particularly susceptible. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation prioritized malaria in its more than $500 million commitment to fight infectious disease in developing countries. ... Humans have been at war with members of the family Culicidae for over a century, since the pioneering epidemiologist Sir Ronald Ross proved the role of Anopheles in malaria and U.S. Army Maj. Walter Reed made a similar discovery about Aedes aegypti and yellow fever. The war has been waged with shovels and insecticides, with mosquito repellent, mosquito traps and mosquito-larvae-eating fish, with bed nets and window screens and rolled-up newspapers. But all of these approaches are self-limiting. Puddles fill up again with rain; insects evolve resistance to pesticides; predators can eat only so much. ... If Crisanti’s approach works, you could, in theory, wipe out an entire species of mosquito. You could wipe out every species of mosquito, although you’d need to do them one at a time, and there are around 3,500 of them, of which only about 100 spread human disease. You might want to stop at fewer than a dozen species in three genera—Anopheles (translation: “useless,” the malaria mosquito), Aedes (translation: “unpleasant,” the principal vector for yellow fever, dengue and Zika) and Culex (translation: “gnat,” responsible for spreading West Nile, St. Louis encephalitis and other viruses).