There are two ways to upgrade a human - tinker with biology or augment with technology. So when the time comes to upgrade to human 2.0, should we become Bioshock-style splicers or Halo-esque spartans?
This week we look at the science behind a genetic boost.
- The science of Mass Effect: Alcubierre drives, FTL travel, mass effect fields, torpor habitats, the Fermi Paradox and more (opens in new tab)
Messing with genes
Science fiction isn’t afraid to mess with genetics. Bioshock’s ADAM (opens in new tab) is a syrup of stem cells augmented with plasmids (opens in new tab) that carry superhuman genetic traits. Prey’s Neuromod (opens in new tab) enhances cognitive abilities by splicing alien genetics into viruses delivered directly into the brain through the eyes. And Prototype's Blacklight (opens in new tab) gets in to cells and tweaks their genetic code, activating and editing dormant sequences.
So how close are we to game-changing genetic upgrades?
The genetic arms race
The genetic revolution started in the 1950s with two wily Cambridge scientists. With data nabbed from colleagues in London (opens in new tab), Watson and Crick deciphered the structure of DNA (opens in new tab)and opened Pandora’s box. Since then, the field has moved fast, and it's littered with Nobel Prizes (opens in new tab).
By the mid 1970s, scientists had discovered DNA-snipping molecular scissors known as restriction enzymes, (opens in new tab) and DNA-stitching enzymes called ligases (opens in new tab). It became possible to cut and splice the genetic code, stitching components from different organisms to create recombinant DNA (opens in new tab). Bacteria were turned into factories (opens in new tab), churning out molecules that they were never intended to make, and genetic engineering began in ernest.
In the 1980s, everything sped up. Polymerase chain reaction , allowing chunks of DNA to be copied millions of times in a matter of hours. And became automated, enabling the genetic code to be read faster than ever before.
And the next logical step once you can read the genetic code? Read all of it.
We've got the manual to make a human being. We have the tools to read, write and edit DNA. Time to get creative.
Pick your plasmid and evolve
Real-world plasmids are loops of DNA most often found in bacteria, where they carry genes for useful traits like antibiotic resistance. They replicate independently of the main bacterial genetic code and can be swapped (opens in new tab) between cells like trading cards that upgrade the microbes' abilities.
And, with a molecular toolkit, they can be cut open and edited, carrying thousands of letters of genetic code like miniature trojan horses.
Plasmids can force cells to make new molecules or switch the behaviour of their existing genes. Bacteria will make infinite copies of them on demand. And, they can be frozen down and stored for years.
But, they tend stay out of chromosomes, floating about in the cell and never meshing with the host unless some serious selective pressure is applied.
They're good for a temporary upgrade, but maybe not for a permanent human 2.0 changes. Maybe that’s why splicers need a constant ADAM or EVE fix to keep their abilities topped up.
Viruses change everything
Looking for something a little more permanent than a plasmid? Augments in Prey are delivered by viruses (opens in new tab), a step up in terms of persistence.
Retroviruses (like HIV) stitch their own genetic code into the code of the cells they infect, permanently merging with their host to ensure that their genes remain active generation after generation. Every time the cell copies its own DNA, it copies the viral genes too.
So, scientists stripped them out (opens in new tab), snipping away the genes that cause disease and turning them into empty genetic transport vessels.
Like plasmids, these 'viral vectors' can be stuffed with genetic code, but this time they’ll stitch the new genes straight into the cell, adding the new trait permanently. This is the tech is used in Prey to deliver alien genetics into human brains.
Trouble is, viruses aren't that picky about where they choose to integrate. And, if they tuck their DNA right in the middle of something important, they can ruin a crucial gene and destroy the cell they've infected. Worse still, inserting into some genes can .
Then there's the problem of getting them to infect the right cells. If you want fire at your fingertips, you'd need a virus that knew the difference between a hand and a foot.
Scientists are working on improving the usability of viral vectors, but to achieve true human 2.0 without the unpredictable side effects, we'll probably need a more targeted approach. Enter CRISPR.
- The science of Alien: Covenant: meet the real world xenomorphs (opens in new tab)
Bioshock or Prey-style approaches to gene editing work well, but they're fuzzy and they take time. CRISPR (opens in new tab) delivers precision genetic manipulation, fast.
Here's how it works.
Viruses, known as bacteriophages (opens in new tab), inject their genetic code into bacteria, turning the microbes into miniature virus factories. But the bacteria evolved a way to fight back.
When they come under attack, they store strips of viral genetic code in a CRISPR reference library so that they'll have a head start if the virus returns. When it attacks again, they check the library and an enzyme called Cas9 (opens in new tab) chops out any matching code, stopping the infection in its tracks.
The great thing about CRISPR is that it's programmable. Give Cas9 a 20-letter strip of genetic code to guide it, and it'll chew up any DNA you want. These are quick and cheap to make in the lab, and the sequence can be made to match all kinds of different genes. And, when the cell goes to repair the cut, you can swoop in with any new DNA you want to add.
The technique has the scientific community so excited that it was named 'breakthrough of the year' by Science in 2015 (opens in new tab). But is the world about to be overrun with splicers?
Rewriting the rules
Splicers can make fire with their hands, hurl balls of ice and cling to the ceiling like spiders. Morgan Yu (opens in new tab) can morph into a cup, superheat plasma and create telekinetic shields. What could we do with CRISPR at our disposal?
So far, scientists have repaired a gene that causes muscular dystrophy in mice, (opens in new tab) and they're trialling the technique (opens in new tab) to reprogram immune cells in people with cancer. We're now in a CRISPR arms race as scientists across the world rush to be the first (opens in new tab) to make a gene editing breakthrough.
It's early days, but the tech has a lot of potential. We could edit single letter mistakes in genetic code, switch genes off, turn genes on, make genetic tweaks. Or, best of all, we could borrow genes from other species and smash them into our cells to acquire traits we were never supposed to have, , anyone?
Building human 2.0
Let's face it, this is still a dream, but the toolkit to make it happen is there.
We still , let alone what changes we'd need to make to improve it. Good luck finding the right genes to edit if you're looking to make yourself taller, smarter or funnier, let alone inventing one that'll give you wings.
And then there's the issue of inheritance. Editing adult, or 'somatic (opens in new tab)', cells could change a person Bioshock-style, but editing sperm and eggs, or 'germline (opens in new tab)' cells, could change a whole species.
At the moment, genetic engineering tech is moving faster than the regulation to control it, and it's got scientists worried (opens in new tab). We all saw what happened to Rapture when the brakes were taken off scientific advancement.
Gene editing germline cells is restricted in many countries, including the UK, but in July 2017, Chinese scientists (opens in new tab) for the first time. It was a huge breakthrough, but out of 86 embryos only 28 were successfully edited, and not all of them ended up with the right gene mod at the end.
Luckily, no-one is trying to take edited human embryos all the way though to birth, yet. But, CRISPR opens a whole can of ethical worms, and if you’re in any doubt that human modification is coming, watch this.
Pandora's box is open, and we're betting humans of the future will be genetically augmented, but it isn't the only way our species could upgrade. Come back next week when we'll be looking at tech and what it'd take to join the ranks of Halo's Master Chief or Deus Ex's Adam Jensen.
- The science of Prey: robo-roaches, fluorescent cats, mind control and more (opens in new tab)