Nov. 9 2015 05:16 PM

A genetic revolution is in the works at UC San Diego

Not long after starting this tech column gig, I was talking to a bunch of people around town about Internet security, how bad it is, masking your ISP and whether it's even worth it, and other tasty tidbits the government and corporate spies don't like. One of the guys (and, yes, it's almost always guys—not saying this is a good thing, just the way it is) I was speaking with told me something very much along the lines of:

"Something else you should look into, which nobody is really writing about but there are some companies involved with it around town, are the great breakthroughs being made in the field of genetic editing, the way they can alter human DNA. That's going to change things for humanity at least as much as the digital revolution did."

I wish I could remember who told me that, because I would credit them, and apologize for not following up. In the past month or so, I've been seeing more and more people writing cautionary pieces about "genetic editing" in Wired and elsewhere, and the leading research scientists who created a significantly simplified process to democratize the DNA-altering sciences work at UC San Diego.

"There is a revolution going on in the field of genetics, and all biology in general," said Prashant Mali, an assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. "New technology has come forward allowing many to make strides [to] study varying aspects of DNA and genomes."

On a geek level, what Dr. Mali and his team at UCSD have developed is a new and greatly improved way to simplify the altering of DNA, which is done by a powerful gene-editing tool called CRISPR. CRISPR is a technology that can do a search-and-replace inside sections of DNA, turning genes on and off, or remove harmful mutations and replace them with helpful ones.

It can also replace normal ones with superior ones. Which, in theory, could make people immune to certain diseases. Or develop super-athletes. Or super-soldiers (calling Steve Rogers!).

Because, according to Wired, what the UCSD technological advancement really does is create the potential for the rise of people who develop gene-editing techniques and experiences out of their garage, in the same way guys like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did. Except they won't be tinkering with impersonal electronics. They'll be making and altering the actual experience of human life.

Dr. Mali acknowledges the dangers and concerns, but also says that his peers are equally aware and on guard.

"I think the field has been very cognizant of dangers, things are not going to creep up on us, scientists are being very proactive," he said. "There have already been conferences and discussions and scientific journalists, leading scientists have very much come forward and said we need to be very responsible with any new tech."

Dr. Mali pointed out the very fact mainstream publications are writing about genetic engineering is a good sign. I agree with to a certain point—making more people aware of what's going on is always a good thing because knowledge is power and freedom.

But what do we do with this? Are we relying on science to be responsible? Who is going to monitor the smart, rebellious layman scientist working out of a garage and attempting to create the first DNA altered Frankenstein and be a modern-day Prometheus? Perhaps we will yet get to see how that "playing God" thing ultimately works out.

To return to the guy who originally mentioned DNA editing as a huge, under-reported piece of news that more in society should be paying attention to, when I start to peel the onion back on what's happening it speaks to a larger issue facing humanity when it comes to technology. Is the rapid pace of technological change genuinely becoming a danger to mankind because the scientific jumps are out-leaping the ethical ones?

People talk about technology all the time, but mostly the conversation relates to social interaction and business. Like me when the original guy mentioned genetic editing, I blew it off because it wasn't something I understood and it wasn't what I was writing about. Once I finally started to dig around, though, I realized the import. But most of you will probably be like me. If you've even gotten this far.


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