From genetic engineering to synthetic food and immortality, biotech is getting surprisingly close to recreating science fiction in real life.
Science fiction is always a step ahead of real-life science. It imagined space travel, wireless communication and virtual reality before they happened. In fact, sci-fi has coined some scientific terms that are now widely used such as robot, spacesuit, or astronaut.
The genre can actually be a helpful tool to explore the implications and ethics of new technologies before they come. Since the field of biotechnology has been advancing in huge leaps in the last few years, I decided to explore how close biotech is to achieving some of the wildest sci-fi dreams and what that could mean for us.
From sci-fi novels to video games and big franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, genetic engineering is a recurring topic of many science fiction stories. What started as wild dreams of being able to control all characteristics of a living being, from plants to animals and humans, is now getting closer than many might have expected.
In the case of crops, genetic engineering techniques have advanced a lot, letting scientists make more and more precise changes to the DNA without having to introduce DNA from other species — and therefore not being classified with the dreaded term GMO.
In animals, genetic engineering has become a common practice for research. Labs around the world routinely modify the DNA of worms, fruit flies, zebrafish, mice, and many other model organisms to replicate and study genetic diseases. The British company Oxitec uses this technology to fight infectious diseases by introducing into mosquitoes a gene that makes their offspring die before they can spread disease. And, for the fans of Jurassic Park, a couple of years ago scientists were successful in engineering chickens to have dinosaur-like snouts.
The ultimate feat of engineering human genes is now closer than ever thanks to the development of CRISPR/Cas9, a genetic engineering tool that is making it faster, easier and cheaper than ever to modify genes. After the first trials using CRISPR in humans started in China, now over a year ago, the first human studies in Europe are expected to start this year. Genetic diseases like sickle cell disease, hemophilia, cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy may have their days counted.
The lack of organs to meet the huge demand for transplantation has inspired many sci-fi authors to imagine futures where some people are bred with the specific purpose of providing healthy organs for transplantation. Science is getting us closer to produce these organs, but without the ethical issues regarding breeding humans for organ donation.
The advent of 3D printing has allowed scientists to use the technology to print biomaterials in the shape of human organs. The simplest organs and tissues can already be replaced using this technique — in 2013, the first child was saved from lung collapse by a 3D-printed trachea.
Since the main function of cartilage and bone provide is support, these tissues can be replaced by inert materials. But the replacement of more complex organs requires the presence of cells. A Spanish research group is developing a 3D printer that can produce human skin using a bio-ink that contains live cells
The next step ahead is the production of bigger, more complex organs such as the heart or the liver. While researchers keep working on creating them from scratch in the lab, some scientists are working on an alternative. Using genetic engineering, they are able to create pigs with organs whose genetic makeup is identical to that of a human — and not any human, since they can be tailor-made for each individual requiring a transplant.
Science fiction has long speculated about the consequences of immortality and whether it would be a blessing or a curse. Though immortality is definitely not here yet, Silicon Valley billionaires seem convinced it’s not so far ahead. For example, Peter Thiel and Sergey Brin are known to have invested in companies working on life extension technologies.
But while we — or at least those that can afford it — keep getting older, biotech is also working on keeping us healthy when we reach age 120. The incidence of neurodegenerative diseases and age-related immune disorders is rapidly growing along with our life expectancy. In areas where traditional medicine hasn’t been that successful, new technologies like gene therapy and RNA might finally deliver the first treatments that are effective at stopping the degeneration of neurons and the immune system instead of just palliating the symptoms.
And for those worrying about their looks a hundred years from now, anti-aging cosmetics based on bacteria are also underway.
Who hasn’t contemplated how wonderful it would be to have a machine that produces any food you feel like having by just pushing a button? (Or even having the machine read your mind to find what you want as in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)
This is clearly impossible when you depend on having a cow for getting a steak. But soon, animals may no longer be part of the equation in the production of food. Lab-grown meat is right around the corner, with multiple companies working on removing cows, chicken, turkey, tuna, salmon, and many more from the food-making process — which will bring along big environmental improvements. Cow milk without the cow is even closer, with US startup Perfect Day getting ready to launch its first product.
Since science fiction coined the term “robot” in the early 20s, robots, androids, and artificial intelligence have become engrained in all aspects of our lives. Medicine is definitely not an exception.
The Swiss company Sophia Genetics is already using artificial intelligence to help doctors diagnose a wide range of diseases by reading the whole genome sequence of a patient. With hundreds of hospitals around the world signed up, the company is gathering a large database that will help doctors make better diagnostics in complex diseases like cancer.
But some fear that better genetic diagnostics might bring ethical issues. The movie Gattaca — spoiler warning — presents a world where children are routinely created through IVF. A machine predicts the probability for each of a myriad of diseases and health conditions, as well as physical characteristics like height or hair color. This lets the parents select the baby with the characteristics they like best, cueing a world where people that are genetically inferior are discriminated against.
This type of technology is already here, though it might take a while to fully unravel accurate predictions of the most complex conditions and physical attributes. The company 23andme — whose genetic tests were on Amazon’s top 5 best-sellers last Black Friday — already offers probabilities for several traits, and the company has filed a patent for a method to select sperm and egg donors based on the probability the baby would have for multiple traits, from low risk of colorectal cancer, to high probability of green eyes.
Though sci-fi always portrays really cool technologies, they often are presented as double-edged swords that can also give raise to huge ethical issues. This can be very helpful to explore the possible consequences of adopting new technologies, but sometimes they can make science and technology look scarier than it would ever be be in real life. It’s important to keep in mind that most of these technologies have technical limits and will be developed slowly, allowing scientists and regulators to work together on how they should be used.
Being informed and debating the ups and downs of each new technology will be essential. For example, discussions about the pricing of gene and cell therapies are currently contributing to pressure companies and regulators into rethinking their massive bills. Hopefully, our engagement with science will keep us far away from the dystopian futures of sci-fi novels and films.
Images via Tithi Luadthong / graphicwithart / Visual Generation / momou2 / Anna Frajtova / Team Oktopus /Shutterstock