Gene Editing

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright March 2017


Genetic editing is going to undergo its version of Moore's Law. Over the next few decades it is going to get faster, cheaper and easier. The tools are going to get easier to use, what can be changed with gene editing is going to get wider in scope, and the kinds of people who will become gene editors will widen dramatically. By the 2050's it is not going your grandpa's kind of genetic editing world. This evolution is going to be much like that which computers experienced as they evolved from mainframes into personal computers.

Gene editing basics

Genes are information. They tell a living organism, a cell, how to make proteins. They are located on a chemical compound called DNA which exists within the cell. When a cell divides into two cells, the DNA replicates itself and half goes into each part of the now divided cell.

In simple cells such as bacteria (also called prokaryotes) the DNA mixes in with all the other cell components. It is also comparatively simple in structure. In complex cells, those that make up plants, animals and fungi, much of the DNA is in a special structure called the nucleus -- much but not all. These more complex organisms are called eukaryotes and their DNA makes a much wider variety of cells and those cells are much more specialized in their functions. Think of the difference between a heart cell and a brain cell in your own body. They both contain the same DNA, but different proteins are being made from that DNA. The difference in proteins is what makes the cells act differently.

Gene editing consists of modifying the DNA that genes are composed of so that different proteins are made, or the timing of when to make the proteins is changed. When a gene makes a protein it is said to be expressing itself. Genetic editing changes how and when genes express themselves in the cell they are living in.

Gene editing in the 2010's

Gene editing in the 2010's is still very much a pioneering technology. It is expensive, the tools are limited in the changes they can make to DNA, and as a result so are the accomplishments. But lots of progress has been made compared to what was available in the 2000's and it looks like even more progress is coming quickly. The latest hot item is CRISPR/Cas9 technology. The tools for genetic editing are getting more numerous and their costs are coming down. This trend is what makes genetic editing much like computing and why Moore's Law is likely to apply.

This 18 Oct 17 Reason article, DIY Biohackers Are Editing Genes in Garages and Kitchens With the latest breakthroughs in the life sciences, who needs a lab or degree? by Alexis Garcia & Justin Monticello, talks about the state of DIY biohacking in 2017.

From the article, "These do-it-yourself biologists say the democratization of science has given them the freedom to do work on projects that are often ignored by larger institutions. They're using gene editing technologies like CRISPR to create personalized treatments for those suffering from rare diseases or cancer, reverse engineering pharmaceuticals like Epi-Pens so people can make their own medicine at home, and even creating glow in the dark beer."

My feeling is that the article authors are overemphasizing the human treatment aspects -- this makes sense if you want to make the article sensational. I'd like to hear more about what these people are doing with the simpler organisms, like the glowing dark beer example.

And here is a surprise new ability: adding new codons to DNA and having bacteria use them to put new amino acids into proteins. Wow! Human intervention into a natural process at its finest. This 29 Nov 17 Economist article, A bacterium that can read man-made DNA Biologists expand life’s alphabet to include two new letters, describes this new process.

From the article, "In a paper published this week in Nature, Dr Romesberg and his colleagues go a step further, by describing how they have coaxed their bacterium into making proteins containing amino acids that are not found in nature. Each unnatural amino acid to be inserted is represented by a novel codon that includes one of the team’s synthetic bases. In other words, their bacterium can quite happily read an entirely new, human-created extension to the standard genetic code, and use the instructions to produce proteins that no organism naturally makes. The hope is that one day this method could be used to make new drugs, polymers or catalysts."

This is also an example of being more innovative on prokaryotes, not humans.

This 7 Dec 17 Economist article, Taking DNA sequencing into the field With small, portable devices that plug into laptops, describes how dramatically gene sequencing and editing equipment prices have come down over the 2000's and 2010's.

From the article, "DEVICES for analysing DNA used to be big, clunky and not very good. Hundreds were required for the initial sequencing of the human genome, a project that started in the late 1990s and took over a decade to complete at a cost of at least $500m. Since then, sequencing a human genome has become a routine process; prices have fallen to below $1,000. Although the machines that do the job have got better and more compact, they still cost several hundred thousand dollars. Various groups are trying to make them smaller and cheaper.

The first device small enough to put in your pocket is already on the market. It comes from Oxford Nanopore, a maker of DNA-sequencing equipment based in the eponymous English city. It is about the size of a chunky mobile phone. Although the machine is swathed in patents, other miniature devices are bound to follow in time."

What is coming technologically

What is coming technologically is a lot more variety in what gene editing will be used for. As the processes get simpler, cheaper and more diverse, more kinds of projects will be attempted.

Bacteria/prokaryote editing will be used to make lots of new kinds of chemical compounds. Bacteria cell structure and DNA are comparatively simple, which means they are easier to dramatically modify. They are also better adapted to trying riskier experiments with -- few people care of a bacterium dies in an unnatural way.

Editing on well-known plants and animals, such as crop plants and animals, will be done to produce better varieties of these species. This will be like the breeding that has been done throughout history, but faster, better, cheaper, and smarter -- the breeder won't have to wait for Mother Nature to come up with the mutation they are looking for.

Editing on humans will be similar but it will be subjected to what I call The Curse of Being Important. This means lots of people will have strong opinions on what are good and bad changes, so experimenting and progress will be much slower than what takes place in the world of bacterial experimenting. This is the same phenomenon that we are experiencing in drug research in the 2010's.

What is coming socially

Just as the evolution from mainframe computers to personal computers brought dramatic change in who was using computers and what they got used for, the coming evolution in gene editing technologies is going to change who is doing gene editing and what it gets used for.

The change is going to be towards a more diverse collection of editors and towards a more diverse collection of goals for these editing projects. Think of the difference between Department of Defense employees calculating artillery trajectory tables (one of the first uses for the first computers) and hobbyists designing computer games.

If this pattern holds for gene editing, the number of people involved will grow enormously over the coming decades, and their backgrounds will be quite diverse. This means there will be constant surprises in what kinds of projects get worked on and what gets developed.

One difference between computer evolution and gene editing evolution is the influence of The Curse of Being Important. There was some worry about the consequences of what computers would come up with, there will be more worry about the consequences of what gene editing will come up with.

This concern can shape the evolution in one of two ways.

o If the concern is big and the expense stays high, gene editing will evolve like the health and nuclear industries have. It will remain the province of big businesses and big government organizations. And it will evolve slowly.

o If the concern stays modest and the expense drops dramatically, gene editing will evolve more like personal computing has. It will be decentralized and lots of smaller groups will be at the center of the progress made. It will be more like how the internet has evolved. There will be lots of people expressing worries, but there will be lots of surprising progress happening in spite of those worries.

Talent Agencies

An example of a surprise social institution is gene editor talent agencies. Gene editing is going to remain a complex activity. The more gene editing becomes a skill a person can develop, and the more that skill can become one of personal expression, the more gene editing becomes like the entertainment industry. If it becomes like the entertainment industry, there will be talent agents promoting the virtues of the gene editors they represent.

Gene editing may be brand new, but promoting people's skill at an activity is as old as humanity.


The future of gene editing is going to be surprising. There is the potential for the tools which are used in it to grow in diversity and become much faster, better and cheaper. How much progress can be made along this avenue is currently unknown.

How much progress is made, how diverse the progress is, will depend on two things:

o The tools which can be developed.

o The social concerns about the threats these tools pose.

The progress promises to be widespread. What is developed from editing bacterial genes is going to be worlds apart from what is developed from editing plant and animal genes, and human genes.

Lots of surprises are coming both technologically and socially.



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