Sunday, May 20, 2018

Genes, synecdoche and the possibility of editing ourselves

Margaret Atwood's 2003 novel Oryx and Crake depicts the evolution and aftermath of a bioengineered global catastrophe. Whether Atwood at the time was privy to insider knowledge that genetic alteration would become easy to do and ubiquitous or whether she just thought it would make a good premise for a novel, I do not know.

What we have now, however, is a world moving ever forward toward what is being called the democratization of genetic engineering or biohacking for short. Anyone with a credit card and a mailing address can now order their own genetic engineering kit. Meanwhile, in major research laboratories around the world visits from awed reporters are bringing the possibility of fabulous advances in medicine to the attention of the public.

Some 6,000 diseases are thought to be linked to our genetic structure. Could these diseases not only be prevented in newly forming humans in utero, but also cured on the fly in fully fledged humans through means that alter their DNA? The preliminary answer is possibly.

Of course, there is concern that gene manipulation might be used to create a bio weapon (a scenario contemplated in Oryx and Crake).

What might be just as likely is a mistake born of a misunderstanding about the place of genes in the biosphere. It's clear that genes carry what we call information, information that gets expressed as traits.

It used to be believed that one gene produced one protein. It turns out that humans have far fewer genes than seems necessary to explain all their proteins. Estimates from the 1960s were as high as 2 million genes. At the start of the human genome project in the 1990s, the highest estimates were around 100,000. That came down in steps to 30,000 as the project progressed. Then down to 26,000 and finally down to 20,500. A recent estimate puts the number at closer to 19,000.

Nematode worms and water flees have more.

This surprising finding overturned the notion of the specialist gene. It turns out that a single human gene is often good at multitasking, creating many different proteins as circumstances dictate. And, this suggests that circumstances can be very important to gene expression and that fiddling with genes is far more complicated and fraught with dangers than the previous one gene, one protein assumption would have predicted.

Here I introduce a notion referenced in the title of this piece, synecdoche (pronounced: sin-NECK-duh-key). Synecdoche can mean using a part of something to refer to the whole thing or using the whole thing to refer to a part. If I say the word "graybeard," most people know I'm referring to an older male. I'm using a part to signify the whole. Conversely, if I say "America," most people think of the United States when America technically refers to both of two continents, North and South America (although sometimes we say, the Americas).

The reductionist narrative now on offer from genetic research labs and biohacking forums is that we can edit the information that makes up humans and all the living world to our liking. We can choose traits that we like, even enhance them, and discard ones we don't like or which cause genetic disorders. In brief, we can dramatically speed up evolution.

Here's what's wrong with this picture. We've mistaken a part, our genetic code, for the whole human being within his or her total environment. We've deployed synecdoche without knowing it and in a dangerous way. Humans are not just their genes.

The manner in which evolution proceeds in nature is through random mutations in animal and plant genomes. Essentially, nature engages in many experiments, not knowing which will be most adaptive under future conditions which cannot be known. The definition of adaptive in this case is survival. If something survives, it is adaptive. The evolutionary process is an endless round of random mutations followed by survival or death for individuals or for a species.

Mutations do NOT guarantee sufficient variety in any species to ensure survival. At some point none of the available mutations may survive for whatever reason. This is the definition of species extinction.

Here is the key point. If we humans make alterations in our own DNA in order to enhance what we think are "good" traits and de-emphasize or eliminate "bad" traits, we cannot know ahead of time whether traits we've deemed "good" will, in fact, make us more likely to survive as a species or whether traits we've deemed "bad" are actually ones that would make us more likely to survive as a species.

In addition, cultural norms may dictate what kind of genetically engineered children parents wish to bring into the world, norms that have little to do with robust health. Does a predisposition for slim hips in females create a more robust and healthy person? It's hard to know what any one cultural notion implies for our physical constitution for any particular set of genes. And changing one trait may have implications for the others. Humans aren't made from a set of building blocks. They are one continuous phenomenon. Some of what we call traits may not be separable from one another.

One study suggests that women who have the variant of a gene that deposits fat on their hips (rather than their abdomen) are less prone to developing diabetes. In the world of genetic engineering there are apparently trade-offs. The gene for slim hips may make your daughter more fragile and unhealthy.

Choosing certain traits assumes we know what the future will bring and so which traits will be most adaptive from both a physical and cultural point of view. If all of us lean in one direction—"slim hips are good" for example—there might not be enough variation to ensure survival of the species. Our own desire to produce "perfect children" may simply result in a monoculture that gets wiped out when circumstances in the biosphere become inhospitable for the one supposedly ideal type.

All of this is not to minimize the suffering of those with genetic diseases; nor to imply that I oppose treatment of those diseases. I don't.

But, it's hard to imagine that that is where we'll stop. Already we are creating living entities which glow (but previously did not) to amuse us. This may seem harmless, but it is merely a benign example of a malign capability. The end results of genetic engineering depend, in part, on whether a person is trying to be entertaining or hoping to be dangerous. Designer viruses come to mind.

There are, of course, the additional dangers posed by genetically engineered plants and animals, about which I've opined previously.

So, are we moving closer to Margaret Atwood's apocalyptic vision in her novel Oryx and Crake? One of the major proponents of the democratization of genetic engineering (who sells the kits that are linked above) is quoted as saying the following:

I want people to stop arguing about whether it’s okay to use CRISPR [a widely used and inexpensive genetic editing method] or not use CRISPR….It’s too late: I already made the choice for you. Argument over. Let’s get on with it now. Let’s use this to help people. Or to give people purple skin.

It's just this incautious and flippant attitude that is likely to lead to a lot of trouble.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at

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