CRISPR/Cas9: Transhumanism and Designing the Living
Words by Ollie Cotsaftis
Illustrations sourced from Tabulae Osteologicae by Christoph Jacob Trew, courtesy of U.S. National Library of Medicine
This article was first published in issue 1
Ollie Cotsaftis, founder and design director of the future ensemble, sessional academic at RMIT Architecture and Design, artist and Doctor of Genetics (PhD) talks us through the world of CRISPR and its potential usage for the future of both healthcare and design.
Aubrey de Grey is a man on a mission. The co-founder and Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation, a California-based research centre and non-for-profit charity that’s transforming the way the world researches and treats age-related diseases, is set to ‘cure’ ageing. “The fact is, ageing kills 110,000 people worldwide every fucking day,” says de Grey in his signature casual tone at a Virtual Futures event in London. “[Ageing] doesn’t just kill them. You have to take into account all the suffering that comes before.”
De Grey isn’t the only one working on ways to ensure we live longer and healthier lives. Just last year, researchers from the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, published a research paper about a molecule that elongates healthspan – the length of time for which a living thing remains healthy. More recently, another team from the University of Exeter in the UK used resveratrol analogues – the chemicals based on a substance naturally found in red wine, dark chocolate and berries – to develop a breakthrough method that reverses ageing. “When I saw some of the cells in the culture dish rejuvenating I couldn’t believe it,” says Dr Eva Latorre, a research associate at the University. “These old cells were looking like young cells. It was like magic.”
Sitting alongside all this biological research is Elon Musk’s Neuralink – a brain-computer interface venture set to help mankind keep pace with advancements in artificial intelligence. True to form, Musk has forgone looking for the key to anti-ageing and is instead making plans for the next wave of human evolution to be (bio)technological. If you’re a fan of ’80s and ’90s futuristic movies then biotechnological evolution won’t be such a novel concept. From Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca to Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, sci-fi diehards have been hearing about the fictional world of cyborg and biologically-enhanced generations for years.
The move from fiction to reality and the world’s collective journey towards this biologically enhanced cyborg hybrid, also known as transhumanism, started in the 1920s when several teams of researchers became interested in the effect of X-rays on mammals’ life-cycle and reproduction. By 1927, a New Yorker named Hermann Joseph Muller published a paper in the journal Science called ‘Artificial Transmutation of the Gene’, explaining how genetic mutations can be induced by X-rays and are hereditary.
Skip forward to 1953 to the labs of American biologist James Watson, English physicist Francis Crick and English chemist Rosalind Franklin and you’ll arrive just in time for these ground-breaking scientists to publish their discovery on the structure of DNA: a three-dimensional double-helix composed of four different structures called bases, glued to a backbone of phosphate and sugar.
DNA is something we all have in common, with the average human having approximately three billion of these bases per cell, divided among 23 pairs of chromosomes, each chromosome containing hundreds to thousands of genes that make us who we are.
We all inherit our DNA from our parents and none of the 7.6 billion people out there share our exact DNA, unless we have an identical twin. That’s a lot of variations, or mutations –variations and mutations being essentially the same thing. As an individual accumulates mutations they are becoming variants of their source codes and, if these mutations occur in reproductive organs, they can then be transmitted from generation to generation. But whereas in popular culture variations are not negatively associated to a biological trait – such as variation in hair colours – mutations are. So, for example, cancers, cystic-fibrosis and colour-blindness are classic medical conditions linked to specific genetic mutations.
Cue the need for a precise genetic tool that would allow DNA-editing to either cure genetic diseases, or simply enhance the human body. CRISPR/Cas9 is that tool. It’s a unique technology that enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA sequence. It’s the tool that generations of geneticists have been waiting for. Not only is it cheap and easy to use, widely available and cunningly accurate, but because all living things on this planet share the same DNA code, CRISPR/Cas9 can be used on any gene for any living thing.
It may sound incredibly futuristic and somewhat cinematic but CRISPR/Cas9 isn’t the brainchild of a mad scientist. Instead it’s the product of a two-step discovery journey that started in the labs of traditional microbiologists.
CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is, in a nutshell, short and repeated DNA sequences first identified by its sequences in 1987. While this sounds like a simple discovery, in the beginning nobody had a clue as to what these sequences were doing, but they saw that they were everywhere from bacteria to archaea – an ancient microbial life form.
The secret to fully understanding CRISPR would eventually lie in the knowledge that some DNA regions can be transcribed into RNA, an essential molecule that plays a role in the regulation and expression of genes, which in turn can be translated into proteins. Yet even though CRISPR sequences were transcribed into RNA, they weren’t coding for any protein. Most evolved organisms (humans included) defend themselves against viruses through RNA structures and 24 years later, in 2011, it would be this simple fact that led a group of scientists to form a hypothesis that CRISPR may be involved in some sort of immune system response
Those scientists were the University of California’s Jennifer Doudna, a world-leading biochemist and RNA expert, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French microbiologist from Ume University, Sweden. They teamed up and, in June 2012, published a breakthrough article in Science describing the Cas9 gene as well as the native principle behind the CRISPR/Cas9 system, which they say is a microbial immune system that confers resistance to foreign genetic material such as those present in viruses. Six months later, the first biotechnological application in human cells was published in Science by Feng Zhang, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Boston, Massachusetts.
Due to the money, prestige and power involved, the American universities behind these research teams are now engaged in a costly legal battle regarding patent ownership (patent rights are currently being allocated to the Broad Institute). A Nobel Prize and hundreds of millions of dollars of future earnings are at stake, if not more.
'When I saw some of the cells in the culture dish rejuvenating I couldn't believe it. These old cells were looking like young cells. It was like magic.'
‘Cue the need for a precise genetic tool that would allow DNA-editing to either cure genetic diseases, or simply enhance the human body.’
As it stands, CRISPR would be nothing without Cas9, short for CRISPR-associated gene 9 and is the gene encoding the Cas9 protein that makes the whole thing work. Target cells are injected with modified CRISPR-like sequences and the Cas9 gene. After a bit of cell processing, the duo hone in on the target sequence and that’s when the CAS9 protein comes into play. It changes shape, holds onto the target DNA sequence and cuts it, much like a knife, with a laser precision, which results (after some DNA-repair work) in the target cell being modified, or upgraded. It’s like genomic microsurgery.
So far researchers have successfully applied the technology to many distinct species, including animals, microbes and plants; reversing mutations that cause blindness; stopping cancer cells from multiplying; making cells resistant to HIV; transforming yeast to produce cheaper and more sustainable biofuels; and making cereal plants resistant to a yield-reducing fungus.
Ethical considerations aside, your own imagination and the current state of the collective genetic knowledge truly are the limits. Would you like to enhance your red blood cells to carry more oxygen and run faster than ever before? Would you like to be able to breathe carbon dioxide and live on Mars without a spacesuit? Would you like to stop ageing?
And it’s not only the scientists getting excited. Artists’ and designers’ creativity has been peaked by this new technology. In 2017, Seth Shipman, a synthetic biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, achieved a world first: Shipman and his team used CRISPR/Cas9 to encode a moving image onto bacterial DNA. The five-frame mini-film was adapted from British photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s famous Human and Animal Locomotion series and shows a galloping mare – life in motion. It was a mind-blowing example of art meets design and an exquisite step towards using genetics as yet another designer’s tool.
There’s no doubt that a discovery like this has the power to change the world – for better and for worse. In 2015, CRISPR/Cas9 was used on human embryos in China. Currently it’s only our morals and what we, as a society, deem to be philosophically acceptable that stops CRISPR/Cas9 from being used for anything other than a positive force, but that might not always be the case. In the wrong hands, CRISPR/Cas9 could allow careless corporations and stealth organisations to act upon everything anyone has ever worried they might – from designer babies to species-specific bioweapons.
Transhumanism is not science fiction anymore. There is plenty of discussion surrounding whether this is exciting or terrifying but one thing is for sure – indifference would be foolish as the power to change our genetics means that the possibilities for life become limitless.