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Peter Watts and the Gene Genies

·420 words·2 mins
Articles Future Biology Genetics
Daniel Andrlik
Daniel Andrlik
Daniel Andrlik lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia. By day he manages product teams. The rest of the time he is a podcast host and producer, writer of speculative fiction, a rabid reader, and a programmer.

Peter Watts serves up a two-part article on RNA editing, and how it might impact the future of entire populations. It is frightening.

It doesn’t start out that way, of course. He begins by covering recent research that suggests that squid rely extensively on RNA editing in order to rewrite their own DNA as they develop.

RNA editing is generally a very rare event. This makes it all the more remarkable that Alon et al report over 57,000 recoding sites for the Longfin Inshore Squid— an order of magnitude higher than reported for any other species. Even cooller, all these hijacked codes seem to be involved in building the nervous system.

Peter Watts, The Gene Genies: The Squids of Lamarck

That is amazing, and it raises questions regarding if this approach to development could be applied elsewhere. Answers to which Watts is already prepared to provide.

In part two of his article, he goes on to describe current research being done on how to use RNA editing to bypass natural selection and rewrite the DNA of an entire population.

Enter the Gene Drive, CRISPR/Cas9 for short. It’s a clever little machine built of enzymes and RNAs, and you can attach it to pretty much any gene you like. When a gamete from your transgenic organism hooks up with one from a baseline, CrisperCas detects the presence of the competing wild allele, cuts it out of the opposite strand, and splices your engineered code into the gap. It overwrites wild genes with engineered ones, turns heterozygous pairings homozygous. You can see how this would stack the odds.

Peter Watts, The Gene Genies: The Genes that Wouldn’t Die

Essentially, this is forced mutation, or planned evolution depending on how optimistic you feel. Personally, I find myself echoing Watts here. This seems like an approach begging for something to go catastrophically wrong. I was inspired by the first half of his article, but terrified by the second.

Of course, that’s Watts’ M.O., and it’s part of what makes him such a wonderful writer, whether he is producing nonfiction or novels. Incidentally, if you haven’t read his work, I highly recommend picking up Blindsight or Starfish as soon as you can. Both are brilliant works of futuristic speculative fiction, and I find that both of them return to my thoughts often. Their core concepts are as inescapable as the un-killable genes that will be produced by CrisperCas, and after reading them it’s hard to look at the future the same way again.


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