I heard an interesting program segment on the National Public Radio (NPW) whilst driving home a few evenings ago.
The idea was based on the premise of one of the presenters wandering into a watering hole and recognizing that one of the people sitting at the bar was, in fact, a Neanderthal. How would the presenter make this determination (assuming the Neanderthal was dressing in modern clothing, as opposed to wearing uncured animal skins and waving a stone axe around, of course)? What would the presenter say? And how would the Neanderthal person respond? Also, based on our current understanding of Neanderthal anatomy, what would their voice sound like?
One of the points that was made was that many modern humans have about 2% Neanderthal DNA in our genomes. One of the presenters also said that, by taking all of the bits and pieces of Neanderthal DNA at our disposal, we currently have about 70% of the Neanderthal genome (this part puzzled me — why don’t we have 100%?). But the thing that really stuck in my mind was when one of the presenters noted that the combination of all these two percent pieces was sort of like having the ghost of a Neanderthal in our midst, which struck me as being rather poignant.
This led me to think about a book I’m currently reading — Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna. (I also look forward to reading The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson, when I get a free moment — ha!)
Crack in Creation starts off explaining how phages (more properly bacteriophages) are viruses that infect and replicate within prokaryotes (bacteria and archaea). It then moves on to explain how bacteria and archaea evolved a family of DNA sequences collectively known as CRISPR that are derived from DNA fragments of phages that had previously infected the prokaryote. These sequences are used to detect and destroy DNA from similar phages during subsequent infections.
The thing is that scientists have discovered how to use to use CRISPR to edit genes within organisms, which has a wide variety of applications such as the development of biotechnological products and the treatment of diseases. The problem is that, in addition to repairing problematic genes, CRISPR also has the potential to allow us to do things like create customized creatures and “designer babies,” which most people agree is not a good idea.
Funnily enough, while I was ensconced in my comfy chair in our family room reading Crack in Creation, my wife (Gina the Gorgeous) sent me a link to an article regarding an AI Breakthrough That Could Spark a Medical Revolution. The idea here involves using AI (artificial intelligence) to predict the structures of almost every protein made by the human body (see also What the FAQ are AI, ANNs, ML, DL, and DNNs?). I can easily see how technologies like this could be combined with CRISPR-based tools to carry us into a Bladerunner-esque future.
And, just to add a metaphorical and ironical dollop of whipped cream (the worst sort) into this potential dystopian future, my chum Jay Dowling just pointed me at an article whose title might be said to say all that needs to be said (if you see what I mean): Brain-Computer Implants Will Let Corporations Mine Your Thoughts for Cash, Researchers Warn.
I don’t think they would like to mine the thoughts I’m thinking at this moment in time. How about you? Are you excited or terrified as to what our future might hold?