Predicting the Future with Genomics

We’ve made huge leaps in biotechnology in the last few decades. From not even knowing how DNA was structured in the 1950s, we’re now at the point where we can engineer DNA. Just last month, the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board ruled on the CRISPR / Cas-9 case between the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the University of California system; the legal battle was fought over rights to the CRISPR gene editing technology which could potentially be worth billions through licensing for medical uses. While the Broad Institute won the first round of the patent case, the UC system will likely appeal for control of the tech.

CRISPR: an example of cutting edge genomics technology

However, I’m more interested in the potential such technology has for the future. The fields of genomics and genetic engineering will not only reveal much about the human condition but give us the tools to change it. Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Gene: An Intimate History, questions in an interview with Nautilus:

What if I begin to understand you as pixels of information that change your leanings and propensities toward one future fate or another fate? The more we understand the impact of genes on all sorts propensities—to have a mental illness, to have cancer, or to have certain behaviors and traits—the more it seems we must rethink what we mean by fate, chance, and responsibility. Destiny will no longer appear as something opaque and amorphous, like a gray cloud. Instead, we can begin to speak about it…in terms of very incisive information about particular genomes correlating or coexisting with particular environments.

We might in fact learn that our personalities, decisions, and lives are more governed by nature than nurture. We might conclusively realize that free will truly is an illusion; or we might learn the exact opposite! We might choose to accelerate our own evolution or eradicate genetic diseases or any number of uses that we can’t even conceive of right now. For his part, Mukherjee says that we’ll actually have “previvors” in our society, or people who survive diseases that they haven’t yet had. That’s the level of insight we’ll gain from mapping and editing our genes through genomics and genetic engineering.

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