Science Fiction Becomes Reality 08: Genetic Engineering

Test tubes. Designer babies. Whole societies being “engineered” to create people to fill certain roles. This week we’re taking a look at genetic engineering specifically for humans (not other GMOs)…and boy, have we come a long way.

Genetic Engineering: The Sci-Fi Version

In 1932, Aldous Huxley showed us his idea of a future (the year 2540 to be exact) in the novel, Brave New World. Huxley’s future is filled with genetically bred humans that serve a specific purpose in “The World State” where natural reproduction is abolished and embryos are raised artificially in “hatcheries” to fit into one of five castes, from Alpha (highest) to Epsilon (lowest).

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Huxley created the “Bokanovsky’s Process” to explain genetic engineering in the story. Completely fictional, the process is used to describe human cloning in the first chapter of the book:

“One egg, one embryo, one adult–normality. But a bokanovskified egg will bud, will proliferate, will divide. From eight to ninety-six buds, and every bud will grow into a perfectly formed embryo, and every embryo into a full-sized adult. Making ninety-six human beings grow where only one grew before. Progress.”

How It Is Becoming Reality

What’s amazing about Huxley’s novel is that he wrote it before the discovery of the DNA double helix a couple of decades later in 1953. This discovery led to huge advances in the understanding of how humans are “made.” Scientists continued to work on DNA sequencing until the 1980s when the process became automated. In February 2011, the Human Genome Project (HGP) published its results to that date: a 90 percent complete sequence of all three billion base pairs in the human genome.

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Recently, TIME Magazine ran an article on genetic engineering and a revolutionary technique for modifying DNA called CRISPR-Cas9. Genetic engineering, or biohacking, is the process of altering the DNA of a living cell. It is the biological equivalent of reprogramming a computer and changing the way it functions. CRISPR is a new procedure which makes it extremely easy to do this.

Scientists at London’s Francis Crick Institute will soon begin by far the most important application of CRISPR. They plan on using it to remove and edit key development genes from unfertilized human embryos to determine how human beings are made. This is a major key we have been missing in solving many of the mysteries central to biology, like how mutations in specific development genes can cause the dramatically different anatomies of earth’s animals.

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So…will we soon be able to manufacture legions of designer babies with features WE decide on? Will we be able to “cut out” genetic mutations that cure tons of diseases or disabilities? Sounds like it, doesn’t it? Let’s just hope we don’t all have to bow dow to “The World State” like the characters in Huxley’s novel.

Now, I’d love to hear from you. What science-fiction ideas have you recently read about or have you seen in movies that you predict we’ll be using very soon? Let me know in the comments!

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Dana Leipold

Continuity Director
Dana is a freelance writer, author, and member of the Association of Independent Authors. She has self-published three books practices yoga, loves funny cat videos, and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children.

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