Fascinating new book explores cutting edge biology

“I” about culture

Walter Isaacson’s new book The Code Breaker is a fascinating look at what is going on in the very fast moving world of biology. IT is focused on Nobel Laureate Jennifer Doudna and her friends and rivals in CRISPR, the tool that allows us to resolve our biological code and that was behind the very rapid creation of both the tests and multiple tests, vaccines against COVID-19 . Good read!

Most of the people who have even paid attention to it know about the importance of DNA. While DNA defines us in many ways, it’s not so much a tool as RNA, a similar substance that can be shaped to make changes. Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use techniques learned over the past decade that have enabled scientists to work with pharmaceutical companies to produce vaccines in a matter of months. When President Donald Trump predicted in April 2020 that we will have a vaccine by the end of the year and Americans will be good at vaccinating a year later, some laughed at it as a ridiculous election promise. Several scientists predicted it could take a year and a half before a vaccine is even ready. But thanks to Doudna and the others, a vaccine was in hand in just a few months. Much of the past year was recorded with the required tests.

And these vaccines are just the beginning. Projects are currently underway (ahead of the COVID-19 push) against Huntington’s disease, sickle cell problems, and even HIV. I think almost everyone would cheer the end of these diseases. Interestingly, the gene that brings sickle cells also protects against malaria and the West Nile virus.

The most fascinating element to me is that people now actually have a tool that we can use to change our genetic destiny. Few of us would argue against what are known as somatic changes that affect us only, especially in relation to diseases. If we could ingest something that altered the metabolism to stop diabetes, it would save a fortune in medical costs, and it would make life longer and better. However, the debate becomes far more difficult when we look at changes that affect genetic lineages. We know the dangers of drugs, alcohol, and medication for parents, especially pregnant mothers. However, what if a parent can make a beneficial change for themselves that could hinder a later born child? And what happens when we can start creating “designer babies”?

One of the less traumatic stories of recent times has been the punishment of wealthy and influential parents for bribing their children’s way into college. The excuse was that it was new, but the top colleges are full of kids of the rich and powerful who have found legal ways to break the rules.

So let’s imagine we could make genetic changes right at the start of conception. It’s going to be expensive. So, for a start, we can assume that changes made to prevent a wide range of diseases are at the top of the list of changes we want. Lots of parents would take out mortgages to pay for that. But how about brilliance then? That costs more, a lot more. Add in good looks. Could we pay for it all? What if only the rich can afford the whole package? So not only do your kids live longer with all the money and connections, they also look more attractive and are smarter than those with less money.

One temptation would be for the government to prevent this. There are two problems. One is that the rich run the government. You do not believe that? I have a bridge in New York City that you might want to buy. The tax code is filled with special exceptions that have been purchased. A whole list of wealthy companies haven’t paid federal income tax in years.

But in addition to corruption, the government is often slow to react. I learned from Isaacson’s book that several different scientist / corporate projects using COVID-19 test kits were in the process of being closed when the government declared “an emergency”. That meant that instead of the relatively simple tests done in early February, all groups had to fill out tons of paper to justify each step. Doudna’s group found that weeks after they emailed the information, the government had done nothing, as a rule they were unaware of required a hard copy and CD.

The real problem for this “brave new world” is who will decide the future. I am not optimistic. But if science is your thing, check out Isaacson’s book.

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