biotechnology, lab, gene editing
Fernando Zhiminaicela/Pixabay

The Future of Human Evolution

Biotechnology promises to revolutionize health and medicine. Harvard geneticist George Church shared his insights in a DLD Sync session with Ellen Jorgensen and Jamie Metzl.

How can we better protect humans from viruses, aging and diseases? Biotechnology, and gene editing in particular, hold great promise in medicine and health – but what are the ethical issues we need to take into consideration? Will the Covid-19 pandemic accelerate novel treatments? What could be the future of human evolution when we start editing our own DNA – or merge biology with digital technology?

This DLD Sync session on The Machinery of Life & the Future of Human Evolution brought together three thought leaders from this domain of research: Ellen Jorgensen, Chief Science Officer and co-founder of Aanika, holds a Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology and has spent more than 30 years in the biotechnology industry. George Church, a pioneer of genomic science, leads Synthetic Biology at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute, which aims to transform medicine by developing innovations based on biological design principles. Jamie Metzl is a member of Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine track and author of Hacking Darwin.

Key insights follow below, along with a video of the full conversation.

Change Agent Covid-19?

Gene editing, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, robotics – all of these tools have led to a new age of discovery in medicine, allowing scientist to “read, write and hack the code of life”, Jamie Metzl observed. “We’re seeing a super-convergence of these mutually enabling and inspiring technologies.”

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, this convergence had been accelerating change in health and medicine to a point rarely seen before. “What the technologies have in common is that they’re exponential”, George Church said. “We’ve seen a ten million fold improvement in both cost and quality for reading and writing DNA, for example, in just a few years’ time.”

The pandemic, he added, was likely to speed up the development even further. “The time we’re living in is maybe multiplied more by this Covid disaster. Almost all disasters are also catalysts for change.”

But how far will the transformative push go? “We’re seeing this incredible technology revolution and a point where a bunch of technologies are being brought to bear on a really interesting and life-threatening problem”, Ellen Jorgensen said. “But I wonder how societally we’re actually going to change.” Her biggest hope, she added, was “that these connections that we’re making […] will survive and maybe even be applied to things like climate change in the future.”

Fighting the Virus

It took scientists mere weeks to decode the genetic structure of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus causing Covid-19, and potential vaccines are being tested in medical trials around the world. But at this point, “we don’t know how Covid is going to work”, George Church cautioned. “We could have a vaccine that gets rid of it temporarily – or doesn’t work at all.”

Rather than concentrating on one virus and one disease, it would be better to take a broader approach, Church said. “We check out antibody and antiviral resistance, we check out vaccine or immune resistance, and we check out multi-pathogens at once”, he explained. “That’s what I call a ‘bio weather map.’ It’s something very inexpensive. Relative to the $6 trillion we’re going to spend on one virus, doing a bio weather map on all pathogens is 10,000 times cheaper.”

Synthetic biology – the research he is pursuing with his team at Harvard University – could bring great progress in this respect, Church said. “We’ve been working on a way that we can make any organism, any cell, resistant to all viruses, including viruses we’ve never seen before.” While this approach will “probably first be ready for agricultural species, plants and animals”, Church is hopeful that synthetic biology will at some point also better protect humans from new viral threats of all sorts. “That’s a completely general approach”, he emphasized. “You can do that in advance, you don’t need to know what virus is coming out of nowhere.”

Genetic Engineering

Editing DNA is quickly becoming cheaper and more precise, allowing scientists to change the code of life almost at will. When the changes affect a person or animal already born, the technique is called somatic gene editing. In contrast, germline gene editing refers to changes that will be inherited by offspring, too. (More on this in our interview with UC Berkeley researcher Jodi Halpern.)

Given the rapid advances in the field, Jamie Metzl wanted to know how different humans might be, say, 200 years from now. Any answer, Ellen Jorgensen pointed out, would by definition be pure speculation. But gene editing, she argued, was probably necessary for human survival on a planet dramatically impacted by the climate crisis.

“The tools that we have to affect rapid change rather than waiting for evolution to weed us out are here”, Jorgensen said. “If we are still around in 200 years we are going to be much better versions of ourselves physically, and hopefully mentally as well. And I think science is going to play a huge role in that.”

George Church emphasized that human evolution could adapt in various ways, not just by altering the germline. “For example, there will be gene therapies that are applied in adults or your child, once born, without affecting the germline”, he said. “There will be bio-hybrids. When we say ‘biological change’, if that includes implantable devices or even wearable devices, that will change us as beings.”

Ultimately, he argued, humans as a species should aim for higher diversity for longterm survival because “at some point we’re sitting ducks – an asteroid or a volcano or solar flare could wipe out our civilization if not all life, and we need to have a backup. We need to have a lot of backups throughout the solar system and galaxy.”

What’s Natural Anyway?

Gene editing is a field ripe with concerns about ethics – especially with regard to humans deciding which forms of life to suppress or enhance at will.

While some see a need for a new framework of international regulations, George Church advocated strengthening existing organizations. “I think we have a fairly good system of practical ethics, which is things like the Food and Drug Administration and the EPA. We need to bolster them, we need to make them stronger rather than invent something brand new, necessarily.”

A crucial aspect is ensuring equal access to new therapies, Church pointed out. “One of the biggest ethical questions is not just whether we should do it or not but how do we do it in such a way that if it does work out, everybody has access.”

As humans try to control evolution, the impact of our decisions will grow on animals and entire ecosystems, Jamie Metzl observed. What are the ramifications? “This idea that there’s a natural world is an idea that pervades our consciousness but in some ways is just a construct”, Ellen Jorgensen replied. “Humans have been on Earth for a very short time and when we see natural in a lot of ways we mean what’s comfortable for us and what’s enjoyable for us.”

Preserving animals and ecosystems was important, of course, she pointed out – but the bigger issue concerned humans’ relationship with nature. “We always want to have our cake and eat it, too”, Jorgensen said.

“We want to have endless food and endless energy and not disrupt anything at all. And so have pristine places and an ecosystem that works. But this is probably the biggest question that future generations are going to have to answer, is: How do we live with this?”

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