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Genetic Engineering: Toward The Super Human?

from the November 22, 2011 eNews issue



"We're going to make synthetic human genomes and edit them, and we're going to end up with IVF technologies that can boot them. It will make cloning look organic, and the ways we have babies today quaint." - Singularity University bioinformatics and biotechnology co-chair Andrew Hessel

Super human soldiers. They could run fifty miles at top speed, far outpacing even well-trained, experienced runners. They could endure freezing cold or blistering heat. They wouldn't have to worry about obesity, and they would outlive all of us.

We're not aware of any that exist right now, but they are not out of the realm of possibility. The technology to build a designer genome is no longer beyond the stretch of our fingertips. Like a cook throwing together different ingredients in a bowl, today's biochemists have the ability to toss this bit and that bit of genetic code together in order to make creatures that run faster and longer and defy the normal aging process. The problem is no longer, "Can we?" As serious as it's ever been asked before, the question of, "Should we?" must be carefully answered.

Programmed Bugs:
Genetic massaging has become widespread. Students at the University of Washington won a genetic engineering contest in early November after they built an enzyme that can convert simple carbohydrates into diesel. They plugged the enzyme into bacteria and set the bugs to consuming sugar. Another UW project genetically engineered bacteria to help people digest gluten.

Genetic engineering has offered a wide array of useful applications, however bizarre and questionable the changes to their genetic codes. Goats have had spider-silk protein genes inserted into them so that their milk produces large supplies of silk. Pigs have had spinach genes added to their code to make them less fat and supposedly healthier to eat.

Toward Eternal Youth:
Gene therapy is a burgeoning field of interest, and a multitude of genetically modified mice are being used as test subjects for therapies that could possibly one day help humans.

Earlier this month, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN released a study in which mice had been genetically modified so that their senescent cells self-destructed when the mice were dosed with a specific drug. Senescent cells are those which continue to survive after they've lost the ability to divide. These old cells accumulate in the aging tissues of the body; in arthritic hands and cataracts in the eyes. The immune system regularly removes senescent cells from tissues during an animal's life, but does so less efficiently as it grows older. Through gene engineering, researchers at the Mayo Clinic were able to purge the mice of their senescent cells, effectively slowing the aging effect these old cells have on the tissues. The mice did not develop cataracts, were able to run for longer periods on a treadmill at older ages, and retained the fat layers that would have otherwise thinned and caused the wrinkles we recognize in older people.

"I am very excited by the results," said Dr. Norman E. Sharpless, an expert on aging at the University of North Carolina. "It suggests therapies that might work in real patients," he said.

Super Soldiers:
Some scientists consider the possibility of modifying the genetic code as a form of "forward evolution."

The Pentagon is pouring $400 million per year to find ways to physically improve American soldiers. Lockheed Martin has taken its own spin on Marvel Comics and produced a "Hulc" (Human Universal Load Carrier) for the military. It won't make our soldiers look quite like either the Hulk or Iron Man, but it is a battery-powered exoskeleton that helps humans carry 100kg weights and run with them at 10mph.

Still, soldiers have to sleep some time. What if we could build a race of stronger, tougher, faster super soldiers that could carry heavy loads long distances without requiring an expensive suit?

Super Mice:
Just four years ago, in November 2007, biochemists at Case Western Reserve University at Cleveland produced a mouse that had been genetically engineered to run 20 meters per minute for five hours without stopping, encouraged onward simply by the smell of female pheromones at the end of the track. The comparison wild-type mouse gave up after about 10 minutes.

Researcher Richard Hanson described the colony of genetically altered mice, saying, "They are metabolically similar to Lance Armstrong biking up the Pyrenees. They utilize mainly fatty acids for energy and produce very little lactic acid. They are not eating or drinking and yet they can run for four or five hours. They are 10 times more active than ordinary mice in their home cage. They also live longer - up to three years of age - and are reproductively active for almost three years. In short, they are remarkable animals."

These mice were genetically modified so that they produce up to 100 times higher concentrations of the PEPCK-C enzyme in their muscles than wild-type mice. The PEPCK-C enzyme is usually found primarily in the liver and kidneys. The increase of this enzyme in their muscles vastly improved the metabolism of the genetically modified mice, so that even the babies, "popped around the cage like popcorn."

Great Pause:
The Cleveland super mice might not have had to eat while they ran for five hours, but they did generally have massive appetites. They also had attitudes.
"On the downside," Hanson said, "they eat twice as much as control mice, but they are half the weight, and are very aggressive. Why this is the case, we are not really sure."

Human beings have the same gene to produce the higher concentrations of the PEPCK-C enzyme that the mice do, but we need to be extremely cautious before we try to "improve" the human genetic code. We run into serious ethical issues involved in the calculated act of piecing together a human being as though he were a machine. There are also practical issues. If we were able to produce test tube babies that have strength and stamina far beyond normal limits, it could be a problem if they turned out to be violent, stubborn sex maniacs who eat everything in the house and refuse to die.

Related Links

- UW Team Wins Genetic-Engineering Contest - The Seattle Times
- The Mouse That Shook The World - The Independent
- Super Mouse Video - YouTube
- For Synthetic Biologists, the Lab is the Place to Procreate - Forbes
- Clearance Of p16Ink4a-Positive Senescent Cells Delays Ageing-Associated Disorders - Nature
- Purging Cells in Mice Is Found to Combat Aging Ills - The New York Times
- In Body's Shield Against Cancer, a Culprit in Aging May Lurk - The New York Times
- HULC Suit Saves Backs And Lives - National Security Zone
- Scientists Breed Goats That Produce Spider Silk - Phys.org

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