Bioengineers are afraid to open “Pandora’s box”

Bioengineers are afraid to open “Pandora’s box”

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We stand on the cusp of an extraordinary breakthrough in the field of synthetic biology. CRISPR-Cas9 technology for genome editing, opened in 2014, is at the forefront of this breakthrough. We promise to solve problems with food, disease, genetics, and — most interesting — to modify the human genome for the better. To make us better, faster, stronger, smarter: a chance to remake us faster than the senses of natural selection and evolution.

Of course, many experts warn about the dangers of these new possibilities. A huge stream of money flows into biotech startups, and the race for superiority can cut sharp corners. In 2017, scientists have resurrected an extinct strain of a deadly horse virus. CRISPR can help in creating a secret biological weapons such as smallpox or improve already existing disease, such as Ebola, turning them into a nightmare for epidemiologists.

With these advances that seem like science fiction, the task is to distinguish the hype from reality may seem daunting. But it must be done, especially for people far from science. How to realistically assess the potential risks and benefits? A new study conducted by researchers from the US and the UK, recently published in eLifeSciences, sheds light on at least 20 problems related to bioengineering.

The researchers dismantled the 20 development areas in different time horizons: the next five years, next ten years more than ten years. In the next five years is expected to breakthrough in artificial photosynthesis. Because the plants can turn carbon dioxide into fuel, artificial photosynthesis may be critical to the energy crisis and combating climate change. Although any scheme for the removal of carbon dioxide to fight climate will be a huge, recent studies have shown that artificial photosynthesis may reduce the level of CO2 more efficient plants and convert it into methanol for fuel.

We’re running out of agricultural land as the world population continues to grow; to feed the world, we need a new Green revolution. The answer is improving natural photosynthesis through genetic modification, as the C4 gene was activated in rice. With it, the rice yield increased by 50%, and since rice is a tremendous source of calories, it’s a major breakthrough.

The researchers also expect that in the next five years will start some serious debate. The first concerns the ethics of genetic manipulation that result in populations with new characteristics. Among insects like mosquitoes these genes spread rapidly, and people expect to use them to make the mosquitoes sterile. It can damage ecosystems and lead to unintended consequences. If we can find a way to reverse the decision related to the editing of genes, while it did not spread to an entire generation? Skeptics doubt.

Another argument will unfold in the next five years: how easy will be to edit the human genome? Scientists say that our ability to edit the human genome has surpassed our understanding of the functions of these genes. Previous studies have examined the statistical correlation between genetic conditions and inheritance of specific genes. Perhaps careful editing will allow us to conduct experiments that will reveal to us the mysteries of our own DNA; in the end, we learned how to rid mice from Huntington’s disease.

But it so happened that experiments with humans entails a unique set of ethical issues, and scientists say that world governments are not really in a hurry to deal with them — and China altogether neglects.

In the medium term, scientists are concerned about the emergence of increasingly sophisticated methods of bioengineering. Perhaps in five or ten years we will be able to create whole organs for replacement, experimenting with genes. Over the past few years, the engineering of tissues already learned how to create or grow bladders, hips, vagina, trachea, veins, arteries, ears, skin, meniscus knee patches on the heart.

Repair your broken heart may sound like the perfect use of biotechnology, and since tests on animals do not stop and show that the generated tissue can be very successful to implant, this perspective is more than real. However, this is unlikely to be cheap. Also, do not aggravate it already existing gap in health care when the rich people will be able to prolong their lives by replacing organs, but others do not?

Special effects these techniques can have on production of drugs. The vaccine is a shining example. Currently, many vaccines are produced using chicken eggs, in the same way as 70 years ago. As expected, this old method has its limitations; the most important strains of virus you need to find months in advance of distribution, because for the production of vaccines also require several months. DARPA is sponsoring a company that is trying to produce tens of millions of servings of flu vaccine in the past month. If we try to overtake the next pandemic which could kill millions — we just have to work on new technologies that will allow us to do it.

But the more people, the more there is risk. Using bioengineering can produce illegal drugs. Worse, the prospect of a bioengineered super virus created intentionally or unintentionally. Genetic information could become a new currency; as the algorithm today can be worth millions or fix the chaos, and the genes of tomorrow will have to be protected by all means. The consequences of computer hacking can be unpleasant; the consequences of hacking can be much worse.