What does it mean to be human when we can engineer our genetic code?

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What does it mean to be human when we can engineer our genetic code?

Watch the fifth episode of our animated Frankenstein series, Reanimation!

Reanimation! is a seven-part series created by seven animation teams and 12 scientists, writers, engineers, physicists, and an archaeologist, on the lasting impact of Shelley’s famous work. 

Each episode waxes poetic about different scientific, ethical, and philosophical domains and the lessons we’ve collectively learned from Dr. Frankenstein’s mistakes and triumphs.

Is the use of engineering to change the human form new or are we simply using new methods to satisfy an evolutionary desire for change? In the fifth episode, Better Humans, Braden Allenby, an engineer and ethicist at Arizona State University and Conor Walsh, a biomedical engineer at Harvard and founder of the Harvard Biodesign Lab, discuss what our bodies might look like in the future. What does it mean to be human when we can use new tools to alter our  phenotype? With explosive animation by the animation team at Moth Studio, and sound by Skillbard.

Comment Peer Commentary

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Julia York

Polar Science

University of Texas at Austin

I think this video somewhat perpetuates the myth that we have any idea how genes lead to a complicated phenotype. We definitely don’t. Talking to my friends that do not study genetics, they seem to have some idea that we have a good understanding of these things – that if the technology was perfect and there were no legal restrictions we could, say, make your hair brown. We could not.

The state of genetics is simply not there, things are too complicated and each individual gene codes for multiple products in many different cellular contexts. We are literally discovering new types of RNA all the time, and we have no idea what they even do. I think the idea that the next step is to make humans fitter or better looking through genetics is really putting the cart before the horse.

That the state of our knowledge isn’t there is obvious to anyone who studies genetics. I think that’s why it can be so easy to get carried away and forget that people who don’t study genetics won’t know that you are talking about things that are not fundamentally possible currently. This video discusses possibilities that would take a revolution much, much bigger than CRISPR to make feasible. CRISPR is simply a mechanism for changing things, but figuring out what to change and how to change it is a lot harder.

Devang Mehta responds:

While I generally agree with you, this is the bit I’d push back on:

I think this video somewhat perpetuates the myth that we have any idea how genes lead to a complicated phenotype. We definitely don’t.

We certainly do know the genotype-phenotype relationship for single gene traits, i.e. mainly disease-related genes such as for Huntington’s etc that do lead to complex phenotypes (i.e. disease symptoms). And this knowledge is enough to begin in engineering these traits. We’ve been doing so in other eukaryotes (plants, yeast) for decades now.

Julia York responds:

I agree we do know some single gene traits. This video isn’t about single gene traits though.

I would appreciate a video that emphasized how life-changing editing single SNPs would be for families who suffer from diseases such as Huntington’s, though. That would be much more inspiring and realistic than a video about changing your image as easily as a SIM.