Nature Future Conditional

The story behind the story: The coded messenger

This week, Futures brings you a vision of the future in the shape of The coded messenger by Andrea Kriz. Andrea spends a fair amount of her time in a biology lab (though she did take some time out to write the story Chrysalis for us last year). In The coded messenger, she offers an intriguing take on how scientific advances might be put to use. Here, she kindly gives us an insight into what inspired her tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing The coded messenger

I got the idea for this story after reading a recent Nature article in which researchers describe encoding a movie into a bacterial genome (Nature 547, 345–349; 2017). Late night in lab, the thought popped into my head — how much information could be encoded in the human genome using similar technology? What kind of state would the world have to be in to make it even remotely acceptable to use genome editing in that way? And what could lead a scientist to use another human, rather than synthetic DNA or bacteria, for this purpose?

Probably everyone who uses CRISPR in their research has thought of a similar slippery slope at one point or another. Gene-editing technology has already been used to correct devastating genetic diseases in embryos. The world is understandably hesitant about taking the next step, making edits to ‘improve’ human traits. But what happens if someone does it first? And, after a few years, if it looks like the kids are okay, even outperforming non-genetically modified children? If one country embraces the technology, others may follow out of fear that their next generation will fall behind if they don’t. Add an on-going world war on top of this, and it becomes an arms race. Eventually, the changes to the genome become so experimental and extreme that it could be disadvantageous to let them spread to the general population. In the United States, a governing authority arises and oversees the implementation of a safeguard (a ‘gene drive’) in the genomes of genetically modified soldiers to prevent this from happening.

Of course the scenario remains firmly science fiction. Currently, many technical issues limit even the theoretical use of genome-editing technology in humans (for example, most human traits are not the result of one gene but incredibly complex gene networks as well as environmental factors). But even if these could somehow be overcome, I don’t think that genome-editing technology should be feared. Instead I believe it should seen for its potential to improve the lives of everyone on Earth — if used in a compassionate and ethical way. Hopefully that’s the story all of us are writing with our research now 🙂

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