Sounds good? This is science fiction but the science quotient is, so to speak, being enhanced, as the grasp of genetics improves, says Devangshu Datta.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
Think of a public personage you dislike. It could be a politician, a godman, a business tycoon, a TV host. One saving grace: That person has a finite lifespan. One day, soon in celestial terms, the Earth will be rid of this pest.
Now think of somebody you admire. Again, it could be anyone — a musician, scientist, writer, porn star. There is something seriously wrong with you if you admire a godman or a politician but even somebody from those categories may fit your bill.
Sadly, the day will come when that person will need the last rites.
Now imagine a situation in which that person, or somebody who is identical and possesses very similar intellectual and physical qualities, could live forever.
In the first instance, it would seem like a dystopian nightmare. In the second, it may seem like a pleasant dream.
Now imagine a scenario in which such a person, admired or reviled as the case may be, may have enhanced abilities. Inherited susceptibility to diabetes, cancer, or heart disease might be removed.
A scientist’s ability to do higher mathematics may be enhanced. A politician or godman might be given an enhanced ability to talk rubbish without blushing. The vocal range of a musician might be extended. A cricketer may be able to generate more pace.
Sounds good? This is science fiction but the science quotient is, so to speak, being enhanced, as the grasp of genetics improves.
Someday soon, in celestial terms, it could turn out to be entirely science and not fiction.
Gene editing and the identification of genes associated with certain diseases and characteristics have improved by leaps and bounds in the past few years.
The latest experiments include genetic treatment for cancer. The US has just cleared a leukaemia treatment that involves genetically modifying the patient’s genes to create a new protein that targets and kills leukaemia cells.
Experiments carried out with human embryos, as well as with animals and plants, indicate that it may be quite possible to remove genes associated with hereditary diseases.
What is more, the change in genetics will be inheritable. Hence, the children of somebody with a congenital predilection for heart disease will no longer have that problem since the gene will be removed.
Similar cut-and-paste methods of gene editing could remove a tendency to diabetes, or thalassaemia.
No, the embryos in the experiments mentioned above weren’t carried to term, though some were apparently viable. Nor were the experiments entirely successful. There was a high failure rate and there are questions about the methodology. But such experiments will continue and nobody in the field doubts that such an excision of undesirable genes is possible.
Cloning is old hat. Identical twins are clones developed naturally due to the splitting of the same zygote during pregnancy. Assisted pregnancies can create triplets or quadruplets by inducing multiple splits. The cloning of mammals using adult cells started with Dolly the sheep back in 1996. Creating a clone of an adult human is not impossible; it’s merely illegal in most places.
So, imagine that there’s a powerful megalomaniac somewhere. I can think of a few candidates. In between composing funny slogans, having hair transplants, and posing in smart clothes, our dear leader (DL) okays a cloning experiment and donates some genetic material.
The boffins discover an unfortunate inherited tendency to flatulence and remove that gene. Instead, they splice in a gene for combating hair-loss, which helps DL save on transplants. The viable embryos are stored in vats. One by one, they are turned into clones and educated to DL’s specifications. Whenever DL shuffles off the mortal coil, a clone is seamlessly inserted into place.
Only the very rich and powerful would have early access to such technology. This means that they could literally mould the next generation to specifications by weeding out undesirable genes like, say, the wrong colour of skin, and adding in desirable genes.
Of course, everybody would gain in terms of enhanced health and longevity in such a scenario. But the top decile would gain disproportionately.
Dystopia or utopia? Your view will depend on the microscope you can afford.