Genetically Engineering Animals Modifies Nature, But That’s Nothing New

By TJ Kasperbauer

Some people want to use genetic modification to restore the American chestnut tree and the black-footed ferret. Some people couldn’t care less. Still others might think chestnut trees are ugly and ferrets are a nuisance. Choosing between these preferences is difficult. But whichever course of action we take, it won’t help to ask if we are conserving pristine nature. Instead, we must accept that we are merely modifying nature—as we have many times before.

Thinking about conservation as modifying nature conflicts with the dominant paradigm of nature preservation. Nature is to be protected, not redesigned. But this view of nature is misguided. We have always influenced nature, even if unintentionally and haphazardly. Genetic modification is only the most recent step in our long history of altering nature.

Many conservationists already accept this view of nature. For instance, some endangered and highly valued species have been relocated in order to improve their chances of survival. Doing so changes the species as well as the surrounding ecosystem—nature is changed. Captive breeding programs also frequently aim to modify the genetic makeup of the species before release. These practices also operate under the assumption that we are constantly changing nature.

Starting these discussions now helps prepare us for policy decisions we will inevitably face in the future. These decisions will be less and less about conservation and more about what we ultimately value and desire. This is difficult because there is such widespread disagreement, as illustrated by recent proposals to relocate pikas, white bark pine, and many others.

Just last week the International Union for Conservation of Nature proposed a temporary cessation of field trials and research on genetically modifying nonhuman organisms for conservation. Until the consequences have been properly assessed, they reason, such interventions are too dangerous. This conclusion is sensible—we do need more data. But the data will be quickly forthcoming, and the traditional conservation framework will not be very helpful. We must remember the potential upshot of genetic modification: not just to keep what we have, but to build and design what we want.

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Are We Ready for Life at 150?

By Kathryn Ziden

A future in which we live to be 150 years old is no longer far-off or science fiction. Global life expectancy figures doubled within the last century. Advances in healthcare, precision medicine, gene and immunotherapies and genetic engineering will likely lead to increased longevity sooner than current trends predict. But are we prepared for this future?

Are we prepared for this future financially? The current system of Social Security and Medicare is failing, facing “long-term financing shortfalls,” according to the Social Security Administration.

A report out earlier this year from The Brookings Institution adds that the gap between lifetime benefits received by poor and less-educated workers versus those received by wealthy, well-educated workers is widening. In addition, age discrimination in the workplace may prevent older generations from working the longer careers that will be financially required of them.

Are we prepared for this future socially? What will the concept of marriage be like, especially given the current prevalence of “gray divorce?” An entirely new healthcare system, perhaps based on A.I., will need to be created to deal with the shifting demographics. If careers span 100 years instead of 40, innovation in corporations and universities may stall, hindered by the stagnant ideas of long-standing CEOs and professors.

Are we prepared for this future politically? Increased lifespans coupled with a slowing, but still positive population growth rate will lead to a more crowded Earth. Increased competition for resources will likely result in new domestic and international conflicts. Longer lifetimes will also increase the use of public services, placing additional strains on budgets and increasing deficit spending.

Even without major S&T advances, extended longevity is inevitable; it is time to prepare now. The good news is that all of the problems outlined here are fixable, if we begin the dialogue and planning that will be required now. There are a large number of scientists working in the field of aging, gerontology, longevity, and other biological or medical fields whose work is directly affecting human life expectancy. It is time that there be the same commitment from the policy side.

Don’t Be Afraid of Our Bright Future

By Charles Mueller

 The story of human history has been about becoming healthier, smarter and stronger.  We have always been searching for ways to overcome the limitations imposed on us by Mother Nature using science and technology.  Through a conscious effort aimed at making us the best we can be, we have proven time and again that we can make what was once impossible, possible, always improving our way of life along the way.

 So then why did a Pew Research Center survey find evidence to support the claim that the majority of American’s are afraid of the technologies on the horizon that will make us healthier, smarter and stronger?  Why are we afraid of enhancing ourselves with bio- and neuro-technologies that can help us fight off disease and/or perform miracles like restoring vision to the blind?   

 The reality is we’ve been using S&T to improve our lives since we could.  Today millions can walk because of prosthetics, they can breathe because of organ transplants and they can access the largest database of human knowledge in the blink of an eye thanks to the Internet and their Smart phones.  We love technology, and modern advancements, while mysterious in how they work for most, are just the next phase in what we’ve always been doing.  

 We need these next generation human enhancement technologies.  Their proper use today could drastically improve the quality of life for billions.  Aside from that, the human species is a fragile, intelligent and creative species.  These technologies, if developed and applied in the right ways, can help us overcome our fragility, increase our intelligence and expand our creativity.  The future versions of us will have very different problems than the ones of today and ensuring they have the tools to survive their challenges, which might range to dealing with a natural ice age to colonizing another planet, is the greatest gift we could hope to give.  These tools, properly developed, are that gift. 

 Using these technologies is the first step in developing the knowledge about how to properly develop, manage and control these awesome technologies.  It is the first step in learning how to control and adapt our human systems to the environments of the future, be they here on Earth or out in the cosmos.  We will never be able to remove all the risk associated with their use, and there are bound to be accidents, but as humans we take equivalent risks all the time, every day.  It is good we are starting this conversation because it means there is public pressure to ensure we evolve these technologies with foresight and caution.  However, we have to ensure the dialogue doesn’t halt the progress these tools promise.  Abandoning a transparent, global pursuit of these technologies will only relegate their development to the shadows, an environment primed to foster our greatest fears. 

 We need to continue to embrace the technologies that will help us grow to be healthier, smarter and stronger, not be afraid of them.  These tools can help us start evolving ourselves with some foresight instead of blindly hoping we get to where we need to go.  We need these human new enhancement technologies so let’s figure out how to manage this reality instead of denying it.  Our future literally depends on it.

The Box is Open, Now What?

Charles Mueller

Today we have the ability to modify the DNA in any organism we can isolate.  Yet we still don’t have the knowledge to be able to precisely know how these changes will translate into new behaviors. 

In the latest example, the people of Key Haven, Florida are about to be part of new medical experiment, approved by the FDA, and to be carried out by a company called Oxitec.  This company is planning to release millions of genetically modified mosquitos into the wild in hopes of containing the spread of the Zika virus.  Really cool idea, but do we know if there are any potential negative consequences?  Well according the FDAs Environmental Assessment the people of Key Haven have nothing to worry about.  How exactly was the FDA able to make such a call?

Most of the ability to say that certain genetic modifications in other species (or even humans) will not have an impact on human health is based on laboratory data and existing biological theory, not on actual direct evidence, like human clinical trials.  There would be no problem with this except for the fact laboratory data rarely translates into the clinic and our existing biological theory is incomplete, routinely riddled with “exceptions” that are only understood in hindsight.  The process therefore banks on a scientific consensus that boils down to an educated prediction.  So when the FDA reviewed Oxitec’s data and the theories they cited, it is simply not possible for them say with certainty that releasing genetically modified mosquitos into the wild will not have an impact on human health or the environment; no direct evidence exists to support such a claim or even a solid theory to back it up.

As scientists, we want to test our ideas and challenge our theories, but we have to do it wisely.  We have to do it with foresight and we need to accept that we may need to move more slowly towards the really exciting experiments.  It is our job to ensure we don’t become cowboys firing off experiments with unknown consequences whenever we gather enough support or have a nice financial incentive (Oxitec looks to make $400M off this technology).  We need to be humble, we need to move forward, but we must always remain cautious when our experiments are potentially playing in a sandbox we’ve never played in before.

In order to move forward properly we need to accept we probably don’t know as much as we think we do.  If we are going to continue to mess with the DNA of organisms and the nature of ecosystems let’s at least make sure we are doing our best to collect all the data about what is changing when we do this and obtain consent from the people potentially affected.  If we do that, we can use the information to better inform our policies on how to appropriately design and manage these new “experiments”.

Pandora’s box is open and the situation surrounding the use of the Oxitec mosquito is just the hot issue in the news today.  We need a strategy to fill our gaps in the knowledge of biological sciences and in how to manage this awesome power over how life on this planet exists and evolves.

Reimagining the American Dream

By Charles Mueller

The American Dream is an idea, an idea that has driven this country and inspired the world for almost 300 years.  This dream was rooted in our Declaration of Independence with the words:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

As this country has evolved, so to this dream.  This dream is about finding comfort in the idea that we live in a country where there is opportunity for all and regardless of your race, creed, sex, class or the family you were born into, through hard work and determination you can create the life you want.  However, for many, the American Dream is beginning to feel like the American Nightmare, a sick illusion of hope in a world full of fear, hostility and inequality relative to times past.  Just as James Truslow Adams inspired a nation coming out of the Great Depression in his book Epic of America by first coining and describing the American Dream, our nation today, one coming out of its own era of financial despair, needs a reimagining of the American Dream.

The generation that emerged following the first references to the American Dream was the generation that helped save the world from the evil that prompted WWII.  This generations’ ethos was all about hard work, it was about survival, it was about creating a better future for their children, and their attitudes are what came to define the American Dream.  Overtime, this generations children evolved the dream to include a greater emphasis on the pursuit of happiness.  Happiness was not necessarily hard work, it was also about working the jobs you wanted and having time to enjoy the efforts of your labor with the ones you loved most.  As the country continued to mature, this third generation of the post-Great Depression American Dream became the first to truly reap the rewards of the sacrifices of the first generation; the world they lived in was evidence of the success of their grandparents.  This generation of people was promised the American Dream was finally the American Reality.

Unfortunately, the combination of the devastating effects of 9/11 on the American psyche and the Financial Crisis of 2008 on the American wallet has challenged the ethos of our time and exposed parts of the American Dream, which have turned out to be false.  The wealth gap in this country continues to grow, hateful speech is becoming more of the norm, and graduated students are entering the job market with university degrees only to find a genuine lack of opportunity compounded with a mountain of student debt.  Hard work no longer seems to be paying off.  While this reality is still greater than many other parts of the world, it represents at minimum the flattening of the trend President Franklin Roosevelt always said should be upwards in his last Inaugural Address in 1945:

“Things in life will not always run smoothly. Sometimes we will be rising toward the heights — then all will seem to reverse itself and start downward. The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward, that a line drawn through the middle of the peaks and the valleys of the centuries always has an upward trend.”

It is time we reimagine the American Dream.  It is time we generate a new idea, a new hope, a new vision for the future that will inspire this nation once again and give new meaning to our purpose.  In a world dominated by the advancements of science & technology (S&T) the definition of hard work looks much different from the days it was synonymous with long hours on the farm or at the factory.  This new American Dream should anticipate the future that will be arriving, one where we can communicate with our thoughts, have robots do our chores and free ourselves from the limits of our genes.

This new American Dream should be about making the pursuit of happiness easier.  This is a dream where people don’t have to work harder to move up, they have to work smarter, they have to work more creatively, they have to take advantage of the world that has been gifted to them and imagine it to the future.  This American Dream should be about providing everyone with the ability to do this, giving everyone access to things like the Internet and creating new jobs that seek out the human imagination.  It should be about developing a society where we reward our creativity and ability to dream up the futures no one else can envision.

The future of the American Dream should be that no matter who you are, you live in a place where your imagination can come true, where opportunity exists to let your bold ideas grow into things that will change the world.  This is a world where opportunity still knocks even if you fail.  It is a world about the future and it will take all of us to make sure this new American Dream becomes reality.

Future By Design

By Charles Mueller

The future of humanity is by design.   There is no use debating this or wasting our breath figuring out if doing such a thing is moral or ethical.  The basic facts are that tools like CRISPR have given us the ability to manipulate our genome in ways only limited by our imagination and people all over the world have already begun to tinker with life’s forbidden fruit.  We are probably less than a year away from some do-it-yourself biologist engineering a breakthrough in their garage similar to how “drop-outs” like Gates, Allen, Jobs and Wozniak helped engineer the impossible under the radar.  Hopefully this will be a great surprise, like Microsoft and Apple were, and not a terrible mistake that sends us down a path where we do everything we can to prevent such manipulation of the DNA of life.

There are two realities of human existence.  The first is that if humanity hopes to survive they will have to eventually get off this planet before the Sun eats Earth or some other existential threat destroys it.  The second is that humanity will eventually have to evolve beyond its fragile biology.  Regardless if we choose to suppress this reality today, eventually we will have to take a more active role in how our biology is put together if we truly want to survive.  The earlier we start obtaining the experiences, the knowledge and the tools to do this, the sooner we will have assurance that humanity will live on.

The future of humanity is by design and I can think of no better time to start that journey than now.

Humans in 2020

By Charles Mueller

What will humans be in 2020?

If you had asked me that question in 2000, I would have been 16 years old and told you that humans would still be human, but they would have really cool technology (think Jetson’s).  Maybe we would be smarter, but that would have been due to the fact we had experienced more and learned more.  We wouldn’t be better because we would have learned how to change the essence of our humanity, our DNA.   I would never have thought that one day we could design ourselves like we design cars, computers and our art.

Many of our leaders in the S&T world who are following the advancements in genetic engineering technologies are convinced a world where we can design ourselves to love like a dog, to see like an eagle, or to have the memory of a Clark Nutcracker bird (Google it), are still many years away.  The same kinds of thing were said in the computer industry before people like Gates, Allen, Jobs and Wozniak decided to do what the experts said was decades away in their own garage.  The world of garage S&T (genetic engineering) is finally possible and do-it-yourself biology is going to start to make what was evolutionary impossible, possible.  It is going to help create the breakthroughs that drive this revolution.

After spending the last decade studying everything I could get my hands on about how life functions and evolves, as well as following the development of tools that allow us to manipulate it at the atomic scale, I honestly think humans in 2020 will be on a trajectory different than the humans of today.  Humans of 2020 will be the first down a path to be whatever the humans of 2020 want to be. Their children will be optimized and their own genomes modified in an attempt to make their existence better. They will be the first humans by design, not evolution.