I often wonder if science fiction writers give any thought to the impact their works will have on the science of the future. Do they write merely to entertain, or do they intentionally write weird, otherworldly material to tantalise real-world scientists into mimicking their work.
Either way, the truth is that, lately, an astonishing amount of science fiction has been finding its way into the real world. Things considered science fiction just a decade ago have become commonplace.
Talking computers were science fiction a decade ago, but now nearly everyone carries a talking computer in their pockets.
Similarly, the X-Men series was introduced by Marvel Comics back in the 1960s as a science fiction work. The X-Men are a sub-species of humans living among us who have enhanced abilities.
There are X-Men (and women) such as Professor Xavier and Jean Grey, who can read people’s minds; Magento who can bend metallic objects with his mind, Wolverine whose body can rapidly heal itself from any wound in a matter of seconds, and dozens of other X-People with strange abilities.
These people have been given their powers thanks to genetic mutations, giving anyone with such mutations the designation “mutants”. In the comics, no one really knows what caused the mutations to take place or how only certain people were affected – it seems they happened randomly and by accident.
While scenarios such as the X-Men comics were the stuff of science fiction in the past, there is a new technology that can potentially make it a reality, and there is a strong chance that within a few years we will have a sub-species of humans living among us who have enhanced abilities, just like the X-Men.
But unlike the X-Men, these abilities will not be a product of random occurrence and chance, but something that is deliberately designed and implemented in a lab.
The amazing and groundbreaking technology is known as “clustered, regularly interspaced, short, palindromic repeats”, more commonly known by its acronym “Crspr” (pronounced “crisper”).
Crspr is not exactly a new technology – it has been around for million of years inside bacteria, who used the technology to defend themselves against invading viruses and other foreign bodies.
Crspr was discovered in the 1980s, but we only worked out how it works and, more importantly, how to use it to edit genes, as recently as 2017.
Since then, scientists have been working to understand the finer details of this technology and how it might be applied to humans some day. Their learning was accelerated, thanks to the Human Genome Project, an international research effort that is dedicated to understanding our genetic make-up – how many genes we have, their functions and sequence – using ultra-powerful computers and artificial intelligence.
Our genes are a blueprint of our physical makeup. They contain information about every part of our physical selves, from how our cells are formed and how they function, to our physical appearance.
Our physical traits such as body-type, height, skin colour, eye colour and hair colour are all determined by our genes. We inherit our genes from our parents, which is why we have characteristics of both parents. These genes are formed at conception, and remain unchanged throughout our lives.
That was until Crspr technology came along.
To best understand how Crspr works, think of a document in a word-processing application on a computer. If we need to replace a paragraph with a new one from a different document, we can simply identify the paragraph, delete it, and then copy and paste the new paragraph into its place.
Crspr technology allows us to theoretically do the exact same thing, but with genes. Using Crspr, scientists are able to identify a specific gene, remove it and replace it with another.
The implications of this technology are huge: in time, scientists could develop completely new species, like genetically modified apple trees that bear large fruits, or disease- and bug-resistant maize.
We could also see cows that yield considerably more milk and a new species of mosquito that does not spread malaria.
Scientists have also mixed genetic material from different species, such as adding the “glow-in-the-dark” gene of deep-water jellyfish to yeast, producing glow-in-the-dark yeast. This Dr Moreau-type “cross-species” gene editing will raise many ethical questions.
Of course, there are countless potential applications of Crspr within the human body. For example, Chinese scientists have recently treated a person with cancer by extracting cancer-causing cells, editing them using Crspr, and then re-injecting those cells into the patient’s body. The new cells will replace the old, cancer-causing ones, completely eradicating cancer from the patient’s body.
While this is an undoubtedly positive application of the technology, other applications such as “designer babies” and “enhanced human beings”, both of which can be designed in a lab using Crspr technology, clearly cross the safety and ethical lines.
Will we soon see new species of artificially enhanced plants, animals and humans emerging? Without a doubt. Is it ethical to tinker with technology such as Crspr? The jury is out on that.