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A Glimpse of the Future of Bioengineering?

The day started normally. After making the bed and feeding the cat, I scanned all my biz. tech newsletters, expecting more CEO shenanigans, inflation impacts, and social media business woes. 

Not this day. I was gobsmacked1 by the summary of a research paper, done on laboratory animals, with possible implications profoundly beyond our everyday perception of the technological capabilities of human engineering. It was the potential of the research described in the paper2 that got to me.

The studies, done in rats, looked at using a genetic engineering technique, based on the technique called CrispR, to make an epigenetic3 change to manipulate4 anxiety and alcohol consumption. The motivation for the study is evidence that binge drinking in adolescence is connected with anxiety and alcohol use disorder in adulthood.5

We aren’t anywhere near doing something similar in people; however, the time to understand the possibilities is now because the potential is real. This technology could allow changes in how we define who we are, and experience life. 

Before I go further, I want to acknowledge that the authors of the paper, the scientists, were doing scientific things to understand cause and effect, not necessarily trying to change life as we know it. Any scientist would accept that here is much more research to be done before even entertaining the idea that such a thing could be applied in humans. The rest of this discussion is based on the idea that the time is now to consider the ethical aspects, long before we are faced with a commercial application of similar technology.

A few key points about why this is such a significant concept:

  • this is a genetic engineering, that can be used in humans,
  • the manipulated changes are epigenetic, those generally imprinted by life experiences, rather than the more fixed biological traits we receive, half from our mother and half from our father
  • this is at the boundary between behaviour modification and disease treatment.

Before I explore the ethical dimensions, another random bit of wisdom from the same morning’s missives: To ace a job interview, know the answer the question ‘What do you know that most people are unaware of/disagree with?’. My answer: biotechnology has advanced to a state where it will challenge us ethically in the near future.

Back to the future. What fantastical issues am I conjuring from this exploration of rats preference for booze?

I see an ethical slippery slope, related to bioengineering. In my list below, each step presents a more subtle question about the benefits that could come through human intervention in biology.

=> Any type of bioengineering: Bioengineering is used to create food and animal crops that are more efficient sources of nutrition for people. Some object to any type of bioengineering in a living organism because it could unnaturally upset the balance of nature. Opposition to GMO foods includes their unnatural ability to thrive and exclude other plants from the local environment. 

=> Bioengineering of humans: Even if it is acceptable to engineer other species for positive outcomes in supporting humans or remediating the environment or saving species at risk, is it ever appropriate to apply these techniques to humans? Are we objective enough to engineer ourselves?

=> Bioengineering to reverse genetic bad luck in humans: There are genes in the human population that lead to severe diseases. Using bioengineering to reverse these unfortunate inheritances could be seen as compassionate, as the afflicted individual (either someone with the disease or who carries the disease and decides not to have children) suffers due to circumstances beyond their control.

=> Bioengineering for human preferences: The same technology that allows reversal of genetic disease in humans could also allow selection of traits, such as eye colour, height or ability to taste coriander. Should parents pre-select the genes their children are born with, if the trait is a matter of preference?

=> Bioengineering to reverse life experiences: We are only beginning to understand the area of epigenetics. If the scenario described in the paper that inspired this post proved to be applicable in humans, bioengineering of epigenetic features seems to be a way to alter the impacts of past experiences, in this case, binge drinking in adolescence. Does this have the potential to create an alternative reality for the person engineered? 

Being born with a trait or tendency is different from a life experience. Our experiences, good and bad, shape us. Learning as we go through life is as natural as the genetic traits we are born with. If we can rewrite our experiences, do we still learn from them? 

This post is full of questions. As irritating as that might be, such is the nature of ethical dilemmas, like how best to use bioengineering. There are profound possibilities that may come from such technologies, which is why I hope there is much thought before people are presented with therapies based on epigenetic engineering. 

1 This means totally annihilated by how astonishing it is. Really, really surprising. Astonishingly astonishing. 

2 John Peyton W. Bohnsack, Huaibo Zhang, Gabriela M. Wandling, Donghong He, Evan J. Kyzar, Amy W. Lasek, Subhash C. Pandey. Targeted epigenomic editing ameliorates adult anxiety and excessive drinking after adolescent alcohol exposure.published in Science Advances, 2022; 8 (18) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abn2748

3 Genetic traits are those coded in our DNA that we inherit from our parents. They are givens, like eye colour, height or susceptibility to certain cancers. Epigenetics are more subtle, kinda less hardwired. They can be inherited or develop over time but also specify more fluid tenancies, like heavy smoking but also disease susceptibility. More details:

4 my word


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