Monday, February 13, 2017

The Gene: An Intimate History

The history of the understanding of DNA and genetics is a fantastic tale of science marching forward and backwards in a quest for knowledge. There were plenty of detours and missed opportunities in the development of understanding of genetics. The Greeks had many ideas, most of which led scientists down the wrong paths. Mendel had a clear understanding of genetic crosses through his pea experiments. However, his work was ignored for decades due to his lack of "credentials". Darwin had some keen insights, but also had some guesses that turned out to be totally wrong. Eugenics appeared to be to the wave of the future and a way to help "improve" the human race. Then the Nazis adopted it, and it become verboten. (Today, however, it is carried out in a more "unofficial" format with genetic testing and elective abortions of "defective" fetuses.)

In "The Gene", the author uses his family's history of mental illness to weave together a history of knowledge of genetics and the human applications of this knowledge.

Today we have learned a great deal more about how DNA encodes "us". We also have the power to make changes to the genetic code. We have used this power to make extensive changes to plants. We can also make changes to animals and even humans. This gives us great power, but also poses a great risk. Many genes work together to produce a certain outcome. Research is primarily through a "guess and check" approach. We try to change certain genes in an animal model to see the impact. We may look at various people with a similar condition and try to find similarities. It may be tempting to "turn off" a certain gene that leads to a disease. But what will be the ramification? Will this also turn off immunity to a future unknown disease? Will that cause some unknown negative problem in the future?

The power to make genetic changes is perhaps one of the most scary abilities we have today. People are having fewer children and using more medical assistance and genetic screening. Will we accidentally screen out an unknown important mutation that is needed for our species' survival? Will we create a homogeneous society that differs only superficially? Or will we accidentally hit the self-destruct button? The state of the art in genetics lends itself towards a justification of an intelligent design. We have the ability to manipulate genes. Why not create entire species? Are we the first to do it?

I could envision a past world where dinosaurs wanted to be the best dino-league athletes. They engineered themselves to be larger and larger until they reached the gargantuan sizes of the day. This was wildly successful for a time. However, problems arose when the environment changed in unexpected ways. The cultural bias to bigness was so prevalent that they ended up having a dino-war rather than adapting to smaller sizes. Eventually they became mostly extinct. That is, all except a renegade group that decided they wanted to get smaller and smaller. They figured out how to change their DNA to shrink them to be smaller and smaller. They then used the genetic knowledge to create other organisms to house them. Other animals were merely biological "houses" were these beings could live and reproduce. They created their harems and started reproducing like crazy. They were able to get the last laugh in as they "dominate" the big species of today.

What will we humans do with our genetic knowledge? Will we try to do too much before we know enough? Will we cause irreparable before we know what we are doing? Or are we doing things at the proper pace now. We have power, but we are only beginning to understand. I hope we can make good decisions.

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