I’ve said before that I think mechanical augmentation will ultimately surpass biological engineering in the ability to enhance the human body. In the short term, however, we’re so much further ahead in biological engineering than we are in mechanical augmentation that I have to think biological manipulation and biological engineering (growing new organs, limbs, etc) will provide the greater impact early on, then help mechanical augmentations catch up (perhaps by tweaking the body’s rejection process, or making cells more receptive to mechanically generated electrical currents) before the mechanical augmentations really begin to sweep biological manipulation out of the way.
If nothing else, people like Aubrey DeGray are working on biological engineering that will lengthen our lives to the point where superior mechanical augmentations are available. I doubt we’ll ever see 100% adoption, species wide, of mechanical augmentations anyway; some segment of the population will probably always want to remain at least partially biological, and some segment will probably want to remain completely biological (some may even refuse biological engineering, just as some people reject vaccines now.) Some people tie being biological to being human; a not absurd belief considering that the two have been correlated for pretty much the entire time our species has been around. So, for a number of good reasons, it’s important to advance biological engineering and make the most of the materials evolution has given us.
Those advances are coming quickly; perhaps as quickly as the mechanical augmentation advances. For instance, researchers at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the University of Oxford have recently developed blueprints of mouse genetics, much like the human genome project. By comparing the genetic coding of 17 different strains of mice, the researchers were able to discover 700 differences in the genetic code of the mice, including differences that seem to account for diseases like heart disease and diabetes. By studying these genetic differences, researchers can better understand how human genes control disease, and can thus test and offer new cures for human heart disease and diabetes, among other diseases. Although this will be a long project, researcher Dr. Thomas Keane had this to say about the rate of progress in researching genetic impact:
“In some cases it has taken 40 years – an entire working life – to pin down a gene in a mouse model that is associated with a human disease, looking for the cause. Now with our catalogue of variants the analysis of these mice is breathtakingly fast and can be completed in the time it takes to make a cup of coffee.”
With this sort of research, what used to take one scientist their entire life can be accomplished dozens (or more) of times per day. Even if we don’t have any more scientists, those scientists that we have are becoming more effective because of technology, and they are better able to identify important genetic traits and ultimately will be able to push through life saving (or enhancing) knowledge at a quicker rate.
Richard Resnick recently spoke at TEDxBoston about the impact technology is having on biological engineering. The human genome, according to Resnick, consists of approximately 3 billion base pairs, and was mapped from 1988-2003 at a cost of 3.8 billion dollars (or about a buck twenty-six per base pair.) Modern machines can sequence approximately 200 billion base pairs per run, and each run takes about one week. Resnick suspects that these machines will soon be able to sequence about 600 billion base pairs per run.
While we’re now able to run more base pairs simultaneously, we’re also able to sequence the genomes more cheaply. By an order of about 100 million times cheaper. That means the original human genome project that cost 3.8 billion can today be sequences for about $38 in less than a week; this dramatic improvement has happened in my lifetime, and shows no signs of slowing down. This year, Resnick expects about 50,000-100,000 human genomes will be mapped, and he expects this number to double, triple, or quadruple each year for several years. This is the sort of progress we’ve observed in computing power (and called Moore’s Law) but at an even more rapid pace.
What does this mean for us? Resnick relates a story of Rick Wilson at the Washington University who, over a couple of weeks (weeks!), mapped the genetic sequence of a woman who died of cancer and compared her genome to a healthy human genome. When he compared the two genomes, he found a 2,000 base pair deletion in the cancerous cells (out of the 3 billion base pairs, or about .0000006% genetic difference) that translated into the discovery of a gene that, if present, indicates a 90% chance that the person with the gene will develop the particular type of cancer this woman had. This means we can screen people to see whether they have this gene (or any of a whole lot more, and we’re discovering more frequently) and give those patients who have the gene an extremely powerful incentive to get screened frequently for cancer.
This sort of targeted screen (and, therefore, targeted treatment) is only possible because of our ability to sequence the human genome. Originally sequencing the human genome cost $3.8 billion. A few years ago, it cost about $100,000. Today, most companies charge about $10,000 for a genome sequence. Next year Resnick predicts a genome sequence will cost about $1,000, and the year after $100, give or take a year. Because human genomes can be sequenced quickly and cheaply, and because the costs are minimal (roughly twice the cost of a pre-employment drug test in a few years) treatments targeted to very specific portions of the human genetic code can enable people to live an average of 5, 10, even 20 years longer than they previously could. By aggregating millions or billions of human genomes, computers can discover further disease-causing mutations, enabling more targeted treatments, and longer lifespans. The amount of information is overwhelming, almost unimaginable, but could have profound implications for the future of humanity.
What sort of implications? Geneticist George Church suggests that we are only years away from being able to screen our genomes, and then reverting some of our cells back to a pluripotent stem-cell stage such that we can then edit those cells with desirable mutations discovered in other genomes (mutations linked to long life, better immune systems, better eyesight, etc.) and then reintroduce those cells into our body such that they replace the original genetic code with one that confers additional benefits. Today, a sick person who needs a bone marrow transplant hopes to find a genetic match with someone else who is willing to donate bone marrow. In a few years, scientists should be able to create disease free bone marrow from the patient’s own cells, and perhaps will be able to create bone marrow based on the patient’s own with additional, beneficial mutations.
We are just now approaching the point where we can upgrade the very core of our beings, our DNA, with helpful mutations discovered in other genomes. We are at the point where we can massively and cheaply aggregate massive amounts of information about genomes so that we can rapidly sort beneficial mutations from detrimental mutations, allowing us to introduce the first into DNA and screen for and treat the second much more precisely than any current treatment. Compared to that, mechanical augmentations look downright crude. So, while mechanical augmentations might win the day over the long haul, in the next 25-30 years I expect truly amazing discoveries and treatments from biological engineering.
Edit to add: An interesting take on the ethical implications of this sort of genetic engineering.