Rewriting All the Rules – The Arrival of Genomic Editing

Rewriting All the Rules – The Arrival of Genomic Editing

by guest blogger,
Tyler A. Kokjohn, Ph.D.

Genetic editing future

Illustration Courtesy of Jeff Ritzmann.

Humans are poised to become far more powerful.  Scientists are perfecting new tools to alter our own genomes and possibly those of all generations to come.  And it won’t stop there.  Genome editing techniques extended to other organisms and combined with strategies to disseminate modified genes through the environment will enable future genetic authors to literally re-write the DNA scripts that run entire ecosystems.

Genome editing has tremendous potential to alleviate disease and suffering.  Because scientists are still learning how genomes function, our raw engineering prowess now far outstrips any ability to predict the ultimate consequences that might follow the use of these new tools.  That leaves us in the uncomfortable situation of seeing how using genetic editing technology could provide potentially enormous benefits while recognizing going forward demands we must both court unknown risks and resolve explosive ethical dilemmas.  Appreciating the imminent intersection of issues, a group of scientists has called for informed and open discussions to ensure the coming genome engineering capabilities are used wisely and ethically (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/348/6230/36.long).

The genetic engineering technology raising the most concern is known by the cryptic designation of ‘CRISPR-Cas9′.*  Although the functional details of the system can be confusing (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/341/6148/833.full), its amazing implications are easy to grasp; human beings will soon be able to engineer their own heredity.   For example, today persons inheriting certain rare mutations in the presenilin gene are doomed to suffer early-onset dementia and death.  CRISPR-Cas9 technology may make it possible to erase the bad genetic information in that gene and change it to that found in the normal (healthy) form.  Perhaps it will ultimately become acceptable to edit the germ cells of persons to correct disease-causing mutations and thereby preempt all future problems by passing only the good gene copies on to future generations.  Such efforts and the experiments needed to reach these goals will spark intense ethical debates.

Gene editing technology can be harnessed to produce ‘guided gene drives’ (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25035423) which could be deployed to modify the genetic traits of wild organisms.  In essence, this would bestow unprecedented powers to genetic engineers and allow them to restructure entire ecosystems to suit human specifications.  Perhaps editing technologies and guided gene drives will be used in the future to control or eliminate scourges like malaria by modifying mosquito vector populations.  Assessing the environmental risks associated with such manipulations will be challenging.   Although (in principle) a second guided gene drive might be employed to reverse a previously released gene drive producing undesirable impacts, undoing any consequential ecological damage may be impossible (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/345/6197/626.long).

This camel already has his nose well inside the tent and we will not have to wait long for a brave new world to arrive.  Genomic editing technology (for research purposes) is already available commercially and biotechnology companies like Editas Medicine (http://editasmedicine.com/) have been formed to develop and exploit the fast-emerging opportunities.  The tools are being perfected quickly and persistent, vague speculations that human embryos are already being modified (http://www.nature.com/news/mini-enzyme-moves-gene-editing-closer-to-the-clinic-1.17234) feeds the perception that events are literally racing forward.

Scientists, perhaps sensing an urgent need to get ahead of quickly emerging results, are calling for open dialog and meticulous investigation of safety and efficacy of gene editing in advance of its widespread use (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/348/6230/36.long).  In addition, aware that some nations prohibit or restrict germ cell engineering while others are more permissive, these experts are explicitly discouraging all efforts to modify human germline cells until the complete spectrum of issues, including ethical concerns, have been fully considered.

The pressure to use genome editing technology will be immense.  The audacious notion that human beings might re-write the book of heredity and direct their own evolution will produce intense controversy.  Perhaps the coming storm will be severe enough to halt efforts to modify human genetics except for carefully prescribed purposes.  However, it is important to remember that gene editing technology has implications that extend much further than directly manipulating human heredity.  The tools can be applied to other organisms in ways that will probably not offend sensitivities to the same degree.  Once the capacity to modify the genomes of target non-human organisms is perfected, it may be very difficult to rationalize not utilizing it.  For example, if scientists are able to modify mosquito species to prevent malaria carriage or transmission (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/345/6197/626.long), the potential benefit to human health is obvious.

However, what if the best approach to malaria eradication is altering or inactivating genes in ways that makes mosquito reproduction fail?  Will we then proceed to drive some species to extinction to improve the environment?  A justification for immediate use based on the idea of safeguarding human health will be compelling.  In addition, precedents on such matters would seem to have been set a long time ago.  When humans modify the environment to suit their purposes, the fate of other organisms sharing the ecosystems we exploit is sometimes given scant concern.  In fact, through the broadcast of chemical agents like DDT we can be downright indiscriminately murderous in our quest to manage the environment.  The problem is that is extremely difficult to predict the full implications of human-initiated environmental tinkering because ecosystems are complex, interconnected and dynamic entities whose functions are only dimly understood.

As an example of the complexities, think of the Monarch butterfly of North America.  A series of changes to improve agricultural economics and environmental esthetics had the unintended consequence of decimating the once vast populations of migratory Monarch butterflies (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/02/09/the-monarch-massacre-nearly-a-billion-butterflies-have-vanished/).   The great annual migrations of this large orange and black butterfly from Canada to Mexico and back may become a thing of the past.  It is unclear whether it will be possible to reverse a tragic trend and restore the Midwestern Monarch butterfly populations to safely sustainable levels.  Are changes which have collectively driven Monarch butterflies to extinction an improvement?  The scientists who issued an urgent call to dialog and debate the development and future implementation of genomic editing technologies noted their extraordinary potential to reshape the biosphere.  The tools are powerful and if used, must be applied with the utmost of caution.  These technologies and capacities may ultimately impact the health and wellbeing of everyone and everything on our planet.

Clearly, the future discussions addressing the use of genome editing technology must involve experts.  Much of the discussion will necessarily be highly technical, but every one of us is a legitimate stakeholder in the outcome and you don’t have to be an expert to ask useful questions and influence the process.  Rather than be intimidated by the technology and conceding these far reaching decisions entirely to the authorities, recognize how your perspectives could provide critical and unbiased input to the process.  Many of the people who will elbow their way to the table are likely to have a vested interest in the use of the new technology.  You do not need a Ph. D. to know whether you value Monarch butterflies more than ensuring high fructose corn syrup will be a few cents cheaper and your perspectives on such matters may be equally as insightful and important as those with advanced degrees.  Remember, scientists are truly expert in a narrow range of subjects.  A few might well be the world’s leading authorities on creating the guide RNA components for CRISPR-Cas9 nucleases, but may never have chased a Monarch butterfly through a meadow when they were children or ever give any thoughts to such trivial matters let alone assign them an intrinsic value.  When it comes to the type of world you want for the next generation, you are the world authority.

I hope you will follow the Twitter feed of the key scientific journals, Science (@sciencemagazine) and Nature (@NatureNews), to stay informed about new developments being disseminated to the scientific community.  Be ready to post comments to those articles and the follow-on reports in the newspapers.  If you belong to any organizations engaged in conservation issues or ecological protection, ask the leaders what they are doing about this situation.  Genomic editing and gene drives are about to become reality.  How, when and where genomic modification of humans, other organisms and our biosphere is permissible will soon be under discussion.  Take part in the conversation and ensure your part of this story gets written.


D. Baltimore et al., 2015.  A Prudent Path Forward for Genomic Engineering and Germline Gene Modification.  Science 348:36-38.  http://www.sciencemag.org/content/348/6230/36.long

E. Pennisi.  2013.  The CRISPR Craze.  A Bacterial Immune System Yields a Potentially Revolutionary Genome-editing Technique.  Science 341:833-836.  http://www.sciencemag.org/content/341/6148/833.full

K. M. Esvelt et al. 2014.  Concerning RNA-guided Gene Drives for the Alteration of Wild Populations.  eLife.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25035423
K. A. Oye et al. 2014.  Regulating Gene Drives.  Regulatory Gaps Must be Filled Before Gene Drives Could be Used in the Wild.  Science 345:626-628.
http://www.sciencemag.org/content/345/6197/626.long

H. Ledford.  2015.  Mini Enzyme Moves Gene Editing Closer to the Clinic.  Discovery Expands Potential CRISPR Toolbox for Treating Genetic Diseases in Humans.  Nature 520:18.  http://www.nature.com/news/mini-enzyme-moves-gene-editing-closer-to-the-clinic-1.17234

D. Fears.  2015.  The Monarch Massacre: Nearly a Billion Butterflies Have Vanished.  The Washington Post, 9 February 2015.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/02/09/the-monarch-massacre-nearly-a-billion-butterflies-have-vanished/


*CRISPR-Cas9 – CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats which were originally discovered as peculiar repeated DNA sequence patterns in some bacterial genomes.  These repeats are part of a system designed to bind specific target DNA sequences and break apart the molecules which harbor them.  The CRISPR genes are believed to form a bacterial immune system, a way for cells to remember the viruses that have infected them in the past and destroy them if they try to return. Cas9 is CRISPR associated gene 9, the protein that actually cuts DNA at specific places in the genome.  CRISPR-Cas9 allows engineers to open genomic DNA at precisely selected locations and edit the nucleotide base sequences, thereby changing the product of that gene.  In principle this technology could be used to alter germ cells to allow engineered changes to be passed to the future generations.  It is believed that all organisms which undergo sexual reproduction will be modifiable by CRISPR-Cas9 methods.

Does Alien Abduction Hypnosis Accidentally Trigger Something In The Hypnotized?

Truth In Advertising.

There’s been something nagging at me regarding the fact that so many abductees come out the other side of their experiences as stewards of Earth, and it is this: When it happens it happens whether or not the abduction experiences reflect Earth issues. How is it that one can recall, for example, a set of terrorizing abduction experiences where one was probed and/or shown baby hybrid progeny and one’s takeaway is to care more for Earth? To ignore this little life-altering fact, the negativist abduction “researchers” who believe malevolent aliens are here doing experiments and what not have had to assume that this outcome is an alien-induced coverup and/or a type of Stockholm Syndrome.

Here’s what I’d like to know: Does this dramatic life change happen to experiencers who have not been hypnotized as well?

If not, what we could be seeing is neither the product of caring space brother nor manipulative Martian, but hypnosis creating a pastiche of the hero’s journey. We know that through hypnosis the hypnotist and subject create an emotional ordeal for the subject to overcome that is part memory, part imagination. (And the part that is memory may be a memory of an abduction or the memory of having seen a fictional one on TV–we can’t know.) I wonder if this is because hypnosis bypasses the conscious mind to speak with our emotional center–a center that latches onto any ol’ thing floating around the unconscious to express itself. Express itself in terms of the narrative the conscious subject and the hypnotist implicitly agreed to.

If the narrative is terrifying to the person “reliving” (or re-imagining) it and then it’s finished and the person survives, does that mimic the hero’s journey? Since hypnosis is you talking to yourself with the aid of a glorified Dungeon Master, do you slay the dragon and exit the cave knowing what you must do: care about Earth because you’re inseparable? All things are one? And so forth? (Note that this would not be possible for Emma Woods, or people in her dilemma, because David Jacobs never finished with her. He had session after session after session after session. It was never-ending hypnosis creating a never-ending narrative feeding a seemingly never-ending series of books he would rather not describe as “science fiction novels”, but which nevertheless are.)

If anyone out there in investigation land would like to take this ball and run with it, I think there are some obvious experiments you could perform to see if there’s a there there. Feel free to get crackin’ on this.

 

 

Why Alien Symbols And Math Will Turn Out To Be Meh-Worthy

Sigh.

Know what I’m sick of in ufology this week? It’s that the old guard is trying to gussy themselves up, polish their dull spots, and present themselves as not-the-problem. They are doing this by mimicking dissenting voices, downplaying hypnosis, and pretending to do scientific studies. It’s as if the world of ufology listened to Paratopia, read Project Core, and said, “I can sound like those guys!”

Listening to Peter Robbins talk about the problems of ufology on Jim Harold’s show is like listening to Jeff Ritzmann or me or a handful of others talk about those same problems–except we’d be naming him as one of the problems. Personality Disclaimer: Peter is a nice guy. I like him personally. This is not mud-slinging. It’s a fact that he is the very thing he’s lamenting in that interview.

Being a part of the solution means actually doing what you say you do–which is following the evidence wherever it leads. Not sounding like you do. Not claiming that you do. Actually doing it. And let’s not get started on feeling compelled to come up with new material to keep your career as a stage performer. I won’t accuse Peter of that, but his friends? Oh, the company he keeps.

But I’m only picking on Peter because I just listened to as much of that show as I could stomach. He’s not the whole of the problem; there are many like him. Some have even banded together to form “new” “scientific” groups doing “never-before-performed” studies and surveys of abductees.

Christ, really?

And these fresh faces of the new include the likes of the same-old-shit hypnotists that got us into this mess in the first place. One of them is working on decoding some mathematical equations allegedly given to alien abductees by aliens. This only interests me because an experiencer friend of mine told me back in September that members of his group were also coming back from experiences with equations and he wouldn’t tell me more than that. It was all hush-hush, apparently.

I’m going to go on a limb here and say that in all cases these equations will turn out to be of no consequence whatsoever. But I’m going to give you something to chew on as to why. No, it’s not the Trickster and I won’t make a Stan Romanek joke. It has to do with my last blog post.

If any bookworm out there in ufology is looking for a real clue that you can sink your teeth into to further the investigation into the nature of this stuff, I’m giving it to you free of charge. Unless you think the following is coincidence, someone with a brain please do something with this….

Hallucinogenic Transcendence

  • When one takes a dose of a psychedelic ample enough to break through to the crazy carnival of transpersonal mind, the barrier one goes through is a visual of flashing symbols and geometric patterns. It is as if one transcends logical structures to end up in the hyper-real imagination that exists beyond yet inclusive of one’s personal imagination.

Spiritual Transcendence

  • When one is on the verge of transcending the personal mind and transpersonal mind–leaving the brain-born and the human collective consciousness for that universal “I Am” nothingness/all things experience in which both minds exist, one receives logical, rational, spontaneous epiphanies and insights into the nature of reality.

Alien Communication/Download

  • Sometimes when one engages with the enigmatic other, often called “alien,” the communication begins with flashing symbols, geometric patterns, and mathematical formulas. And sometimes these are perceived to be “downloads.”

Could it be that in spirituality universal, logical truths come to us not because enlightened beings or god(s) deem us worthy to report such wisdom to our tribe but because that’s the barrier of the brain or of the rigid, rational self caving in?

Could it be that in the psychedelic trip it’s a similar story? A logical breech into the translogical means you see the logical being breeched?

Similar also in the “alien” encounter, which marries the two: an experiencer perceives these beings from on high downloading their brains with symbols or otherwise being shown flashing visuals of physics.

Could these three similar/same types of visuals be what the fabric of reality looks like when the egoic, rigid self is about to transcend its own state and/or its own physics? Do we, in those moments, necessarily see… physics?

There might be something we can grab onto here. At the very least, we can say that when these abductee equations come back as a hodge-podge of stuff we already know, we’ll have another theory to look at besides they’re lying, they’re delusional, or it’s the self-negating principle of Trickster Theory.

And we can now question whether these equations were given to them or were just a natural part of their hyper-real circumstance.

Hyper-real circumstance… hmmm… This means that an alien abduction… ah…  how do I put this delicately for the alien crusaders? … Wait for it… –ain’t nuts and bolts aliens here with us in the flesh and blood.

Yes, taking a look at what I just laid out means calling into question the reality in which abductions take place. It may mean there’s no Star Trek-like disclosure coming anytime soon because the abduction or communication–whatever the correct term is at this point–is taking place not in a ship hovering over one’s house, but in a frequency right next to channel normal, which is located just outside the bubble of the brain-born self.

Are the Peter Robbins’ of the world ready to tackle that? Ready to give up the hypnosis crusade and the Rendlesham noise of the dying cottage industry they built or partied in, yet now wish to publicly divorce themselves from?

Cricket… Cricket….

Sigh.