The Code of Life
Centuries ago we were writing on clay tablets. In this century we will write the stuff of life.
This article was co-authored with Tane Hunter
At the most basic level, we’re all biological machines, designed not only to pass on information to create future generations, but also to conserve and amplify the information best suited to our current environment. These are the fundamentals of evolution. Our genes are what allow us to do this — they’re software programs. This is not a metaphor. Genes are made up from the code of life. It’s just that the sequences of data are made up of Gs, Cs, Ts and As, rather than 1s and 0s.
One generation ago, at around the same time as the birth of the modern internet, a group of scientists embarked on one of the most ambitious scientific projects of all time: an attempt to decipher the entire human genome, the software program that makes us from the bottom up. In 2003, after spending billions of dollars, they pulled it off. The story of how they did it is one of greed, ingenuity, ambition, big egos and dazzling technological breakthroughs. Someone should definitely make a movie about it.
That’s not what this article is about.
It’s about what’s happened since then.
Today, in the year 2017, we can read this code of life in high fidelity. Genome sequencing is commonplace in the fields of biology and medical research. It costs around $1,000 per genome and takes about a week. A decade ago it cost $300,000. And according to Francis deSouza, the chief executive of the world’s biggest sequencing company, it’s on its way to taking an hour and costing about $100.
Genome sequencing is getting better all the time. A company called Oxford Nanopore has a device the size of a Snickers bar that connects to a laptop via USB, and works by passing strands of DNA through a tiny hole at hypersonic speeds and measuring the corresponding change in electric current. This is orders of magnitude faster and means you can take genome sequencing into the field.
Two months ago they sequenced the whole genome of a human for the first time, putting them on a level playing field with the biggest players. Another company called Helix has plans to sequence and store your entire exome, every letter of the approximately 22,000 genes that code for proteins in your body.
This newfound ability to read our genome gives us a much better understanding of what makes us healthy and what makes us sick. The code of life that makes each of us up is totally unique, which means we all differ in how we get diseases and respond to treatments, nutrition and lifestyle. As the technology gets faster and more sophisticated it’s getting easier to determine the best treatment based on the genetics of both the disease AND the individual.
This is not sci-fi. It’s happening right now. Over in Boston for example, a company called Veritas Genetics is offering a $1,500 baby genome sequencing test that will report back on 950 serious early and later life disease risks, 200 genes connected to drug reactions, and more than 100 physical traits.
For the scientific and medical professions, heavy data-mining and computation are now a big part of the job. The sequencing is only part of it. Quality checks, pre-processing of sequenced reads and mapping to a reference genome require powerful computing facilities, efficient algorithms and skilled staff that know how to analyse data. It’s a time-consuming process.
The Broad Institute in Massachusetts recently said that during one month it decoded “the equivalent of one human genome every 32 minutes. That translated to about 200 terabytes of raw data.” While that’s smaller than what’s handled daily by big tech companies, it far exceeds anything biologists and hospitals have ever dealt with, and means they’re having to completely rethink hiring practices, training and infrastructure development.
Data isn’t just the new oil. It’s the new lifeblood of the medical profession.
Those three billion letters of code are an extraordinary treasure trove of information. There are large-scale genome projects underway in the US, the UK, France, Canada, Australia, Qatar, Japan, Iceland, Ireland, Malaysia, India and Estonia. In 2010, the BGI Genomics Institute in Shenzhen was probably hosting a higher sequencing capacity than that of the entire United States, and they’re now aiming for a million human genomes.
We can also sequence the DNA of animal, plant and microbial species. Earlier this year a group of US and Chinese researchers announced their intent to sequence “all life on Earth.” Their plan, dubbed the Earth BioGenome Project, will start by focusing on eukaryotes; the group of organisms that includes all plants, animals and single-celled organisms such as amoebas.
We’re also starting to understand how genetic data actually becomes a biological reality. This is the science of epigenetics. It’s about how your body takes information from the surrounding environment, and then creates biological machines that cause transformation. The best way to think about this is that a caterpillar and a butterfly both have the same genetic code. It’s their environment that tells that code what to do and when — leading to metamorphosis. Epigenetics is revolutionary because it shows that that the age-old ‘nature versus nurture’ debate is meaningless. Experience and environment can alter gene activity, so the either/or thinking mode no longer applies.
Hold tight, we’re only just getting going here…
If the big medical breakthrough of the last generation was our ability to collect and read the code of life, then the big one of this generation is our ability to actually edit it. In 2012, two biologists, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, invented a technology called CRISPR-Cas9, which allows us to take our DNA and reverse-engineer it, to simulate it, reprogram the parts that are broken, the ones that give us diseases, or make us age.
(Incidentally, as a sign of the changing times the symbolism of this is pretty satisfying. When you see pictures from the 90s of the Human Genome Project, it’s all middle aged dudes in lab coats. These days, no old men or lab coats in sight).
Thanks to these two women, the code of life isn’t read-only anymore, it’s now write, too. In the last 18 months doctors have used CRISPR to cure luekemia, reverse blindness, engineer Salmonella bacteria to attack brain cancer, and edit bone marrow cells in mice to treat sickle-cell anemia. Agronomists have used to used it to give cows increased resistance to bovine tuberculosis, and stop mushrooms and bananas from going off. Bioengineers have genetically engineered the malaria parasite to be safe for human beings, and were able to inject it into people, creating a foolproof vaccine.
For agronomists, CRISPR is a godsend because its ability to add or remove plant traits is faster, more precise, easier and cheaper than traditional breeding techniques or old school forms of genetic modification. Although scientists can use CRISPR to add genes from other species, many labs are working to exploit the vast diversity of genes within a plant species, which contain the most valued traits anyway. In tomato growing for example gene editing can separately modify fruit size and weight, the branches that make flowers, the amount of flowers and the architecture of the plant from compact bush to vines and creepers. It’s a better, safer and more sustainable form of genetic modification.
The era of human gene editing is also now well underway. Scientists in Portland recently succeeded in creating the first genetically modified human embryo in the United States. Their results follow two trials, one last year and one in April this year, by Chinese researchers who injected genetically modified cells into cancer patients.
This is usually the point where we’re supposed to say how important it is to consider the moral and ethical implications.
The problem is that the pace of technological change doesn’t care about our high minded sentiments. Barriers to mass use are falling rapidly and regulators have no chance of keeping up. Dog breeders looking to improve breeds suffering from debilitating maladies are actively pursuing gene hacking. A former NASA fellow in synthetic biology now sells functional CRISPR kits for $159 from his online store.
That doesn’t mean we should be worrying about designer babies quite yet. In the short to medium term, gene editing will work more like a powerful vaccine, giving us the ability to remove many of the 10,000 diseases caused by mutations in a single gene. Scientists are already planning clinical trials to edit human genes linked to cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, and other fatal hereditary conditions.
In the longer term though, we could edit genes and build new ones to eradicate all hereditary diseases. With genetic alterations, we might be able to withstand anthrax attacks or epidemics of viruses released from the Arctic tundra. We might revive extinct species such as the passenger pigeon, and the woolly mammoth. That’s when stuff starts getting really interesting…
Centuries ago we were writing on clay tablets. In this century we will write the stuff of life.
Within the lifetimes of most children today, genetic and epigenetic modification will allow us to change our physical appearance and capabilities, and tweak more intangible aspects of our being such as emotion, creativity or sociability.
It’s going to transform the societal role of medicine from the treatment paradigm that has prevailed for thousands of years to one of transforming organisms to give them overwhelming natural advantages against disease and ageing.
As they develop, these technologies will raise the most difficult ethical questions that science has ever presented society
It’s a big moment in the story of humanity, comparable to things like the invention of the plough, the printing press, the steam engine and the microchip.
It means that we will move from passive to active agents in our own evolution, gaining greater control over lifespan, intelligence and other basic human characteristics.
Fostering intelligent, optimistic thinking for the future. We help people understand what’s on the frontiers of science, technology and human progress, and what it means for humanity. Our fortnightly newsletter is filled with stories about people from around the planet who are using science and technology to make the world a better place.