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.
Genes are information. They tell a living organism, a cell, both 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.