The other day my 94 year-old psychologist friend sat down opposite me as I was having lunch at the retirement center. I was munching dutifully on a slab of grilled tofu and a few roasted potatoes, nourishing stuff, but uninspiring. He looked at my plate with a blank expression. “The cooks here are culinary students who dropped out to graduate in upholstery,” he said. I roared with laughter, though there was more truth than mirth in his comment.
Back at my apartment, I sat down to read, wondering why most institutions got poor marks for their fare. Hadn’t Watson been tasked with making recipes taste better? (Blog 7/16/2015) While thinking about Watson, I was forced to sit up in my chair: “Engineered humans are a ways off—but nobody thinks they’re science fiction anymore.”( The Genesis Engine,” by Amy Maxmen, Wired, August 2015, pg 63.) Apparently, researchers have found a way to improve humans but not tofu.
The article was long and complex, dealing with a new gene splitting technique called Crispr- Cas9. ( Ibid pg. 58.) In short, Crispr-Cas9 allows bio-engineers to “gene edit.” On the dark side, we’re talking about “designer babies, invasive mutants, and species specific bio-weapons,” (Ibid, pg. 58) On the bright side, the technique promises a new wave of medical miracles that might include a cure for blindness, aids, and cancer. (Ibid pg. 58).
Understandably, each time we tinker with nature, we find ourselves at an inersection where good and bad consequences can occur. Splitting the atom is one example, but there have been others, less dramatic, which have had an impact on our lives. Genetic editing in agriculture has reduced the need for petrochemicals, but GMO’s aren’t for everyone. Altering the genes of mosquitoes may now be possible. With a snip and a tuck we might prevent them from becoming carriers of malaria. Or, we might eliminate mosquitoes, altogether. How bats might feel about that is worth considering, however. (Ibid pg.61-62)
Also in question, is who should we allow to engage in gene altering. At the moment, there are no rules and anyone with cash and an untried idea could wreak havoc on the environment. (Ibid pg. 64) (Blog 6/2/15). Because there are no guidelines, scientists are beginning to clamor for them. One requirement might be to limit the conduct of research to areas where a species under investigation isn’t native, preventing it from causing damage to its surroundings should it escape the laboratory. Another idea would be to enable a mutant gene to be remotely turned off. (Ibid, pg.63)
Of note, the leaders in this field are women: Jennifer Doundna, an American and Emmanuelle Charpentier, French. Like, Madame Curie, what they discover could alter the course of human evolution. Looks like our species could be in for a bumpy ride. Given what’s at stake, is it too much ask for better tasting tofu?