Until recently, engineering plant genetics was a bit of a hope and a prayer. But with technology Voytas helped develop, researchers can locate exact sequences on the DNA molecule of any organism, snip the genome exactly so and introduce new material.
In the past, genetic engineers cobbled together swatches from two organisms — to incorporate, for example, the gene of a soil bacterium into the genome of corn to produce a corn plant that produces its own chemical defense against European corn borer. These “transgenic” organisms gave rise to the appellation Frankenfood.
But now, Voytas said, researchers can tweak individual base pairs of the DNA molecule of an organism. In many cases there’s no need to import part of another life form. In fact, it is the very kind of modification that nature might have done in time — but faster, surer and more efficient.
Said Voytas, “Because it’s precise, it’s subtle and you’re not necessarily adding foreign DNA, it may be met with more widespread acceptance.”
Well, maybe. But acceptance or not, advances are being made with astounding speed.
Voytas announced his discovery in late 2011. By the end of the year, the journal Nature hailed his technology as the scientific “method of the year.” A year later, Science magazine called Voytas’s technique one of science’s top breakthroughs.
But even as that announcement was made, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley and the Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden had discovered yet another method of editing genetic material that promises to be even easier and more powerful.
Despite whatever reservations we may have about messing with Mother Nature, the possibilities seem breathtaking.
In agriculture, scientists continue to use genetic engineering to introduce desirable traits. “You’re going to see a whole range of modifying multiple genes at a time, increasing disease resistance while at the same time changing fatty acids so that the oil made by the plant, for example, is of higher value,” said Voytas.
As the climate changes in unpredictable ways, it’s easy to imagine that geneticists will try to breed crops, and perhaps animals, that are better adapted to new conditions.
“Plants have a lot of work to do for humankind in the next two or three decades,” said Voytas. “It’s going to be difficult for traditional methods to keep up, in my opinion. We’re going to need these newer technologies to ensure that plants can do the business we need them to do.”
In medicine, genetic engineering is poised to provide cures for genetic diseases, such as hemophilia and sickle-cell anemia. It might soon cure devastating illnesses, including cancer and HIV, by conferring the resistance that some people come by naturally.
But that kind of vision has become almost prosaic. The brave new world is braver than that.
George Church, a Harvard genetics professor and a pioneer in the emerging field of “synthetic biology,” has suggested that we will soon be able to engineer the genome of a Neanderthal and to give birth to one, via a human “mother.”
“The main goal is to increase diversity,” he told the German magazine Der Spiegel. “The one thing that is bad for society is low diversity. This is true for culture or evolution, for species and also for whole societies. If you become a monoculture, you are at great risk of perishing. Therefore the re-creation of Neanderthals would be mainly a question of societal risk avoidance.”
An engineered population of Neanderthals raises ethical issues that make the project almost unimaginable. But scientists and others are beginning to imagine projects to use genetic engineering to bring not cavemen but other creatures back from the dead end of extinction.
One is Stewart Brand, one-time publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, technologist and environmental forward-thinker. His Long Now Foundation’s “Revive and Restore” project proposes reintroducing the passenger pigeon.
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