Bioengineering: a brave new world?

It seems to be alarmingly socially acceptable to parade a lack of scientific or mathematical understanding, yet the same attitude towards literature and the arts is ridiculed

Photo credit: avrenim_acceber

Photo credit: avrenim_acceber

It seems to be alarmingly socially acceptable to parade a lack of scientific or mathematical understanding, yet the same attitude towards literature and the arts is ridiculed. An arts student can comfortably say, “well, I barely passed my GCSE maths” when faced with dividing a restaurant bill, but a undergrad scientist claiming “I only got a D in English Literature” when stumped by a pub quiz question on the author of Romeo & Juliet is very brave indeed. So why is it acceptable to lose all scientific and mathematical know-how during the post-GSCE booze-up, whilst science students are required to have a general knowledge of the arts?

This subject is covered in great depth, and with greater degrees of anger, all over the internet, so I shall refrain from going into it further. Instead, I offer a possible degree of balance in providing a background understanding to the science seen in the media and in literature.

In 1931, Aldous Huxley published his seminal work, Brave New World. Generally filed under that grand umbrella title “science-fiction”, it is a thought-provoking work of satirical fiction. Its dystopian future features developments in reproductive technology, brainwashing, sleep-learning, and the placation of the masses with the wonder drug soma.

But from a biological perspective, the stand-out technology Huxley introduces is the concept of bioengineering. We now live in an age where our ever-increasing knowledge of our genome and development could (and will) escalate us rapidly into having the ability/possibility to design the perfect children, the clones of lost loved ones, and perhaps, eventually, the perfect workers.

So how does this work? Well, to start with, we can consider the processes necessary to create transgenic mice – mice whose genomes contain genetic information introduced artificially from another organism. These mice were first created nearly 40 years ago in 1974. Transgenic animals are used to produce therapeutic drugs for humans. Tracy the Sheep (no relation to Dolly) was one of the first. Created in 1990, she produced a protein called AAT in her milk, due to the insertion of human DNA into her genome. This protein is used to treat patients suffering from cystic fibrosis. Tracy made it to the ripe old age of seven and inspired the cloning of Dolly.

One method of creating transgenic animals is the Embryonic Stem Cell Method. The foreign DNA is introduced to embryonic stem cells of the target species by processes such as electroporation (the cells are zapped with a quick burst of electricity which creates tiny holes, allowing the genetic material to enter) or by treatment with specific chemicals.

These stem cells are then inserted back in to the blastocyst (very early stage embryo) and then the whole thing is implanted into a foster mother and born normally.

The animal produced here is considered chimerical, like the Greek myth, an animal made up of parts of different creatures. Some of its cells will have accepted the foreign DNA, some will have not. Conventional breeding techniques, which have been in use for hundreds of years, can then be used to produce offspring that are fully transgenic.

So what is the difference between creating a mouse or a sheep with foreign DNA and doing the same for a human? Could we make a human with an ape’s strength or, more excitingly, could we create glow-in-the-dark babies?

Frankly, there is very little difference from a purely biological point of view between creating fluorescent puppies, as done in 2009 in South Korea by Byeong-Chun Lee, and doing the same with a human. Time and money are factors; it takes many more years and a great deal more lab space to raise a human to maturity than it does a mouse. Ethical concerns, on the other hand, play a greater role.

So are Huxley’s visions of production lines of children, each carefully specified to the role that they will play in society unrealistic? Well, yes. Scientists are people too; we have the same ethical concerns as the rest of you. But is it impossible? Certainly not. Bioengineering is a rapidly growing field – and who knows, perhaps someone out there with enough funding really does want to create a Brave New World all for themselves.

And, as for the book, well I think it is a damn good read.

One comment

  1. This is brilliant; so well written and articulated.

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