Down with Gene Tyranny!

Freeing ourselves from our genes


The idea of using genetic engineering to enhance human beings scares a lot of people. For example, at a 2006 meeting called by the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, Richard Hayes, the executive director of the left-leaning Center for Bioethics and Society, testified that "enhancement technologies would quickly be adopted by the most privileged, with the clear intent of widening the divisions that separate them and their progeny from the rest of the human species." Deploying such enhancement technologies would "deepen genetic and biological inequality among individuals," exacerbating "tendencies towards xenophobia, racism and warfare." Hayes concluded that allowing people to use genetic engineering for enhancement "could be a mistake of world-historical proportions."

Meanwhile intellectuals with a more right-wing bent such as Nigel Cameron, president of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, worry that "one of the greatest ethical concerns about the potential uses of germline interventions to enhance normal human functions is that their availability will widen the existing inequalities between the rich and the poor." 

Even proponents of genetic enhancement, such as Princeton University biologist Lee Silver, have argued that genetic engineering will lead to a class of genetically enhanced people that he calls the GenRich who will occupy the heights of the economy while unenhanced Naturals provide whatever grunt labor the future needs. Silver suggested that eventually "the GenRich class and the Natural class will become…entirely separate species with no ability to cross-breed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee."

A more optimistic view is that the ability to install whatever genes one might want will become so cheap and routine that everybody would have access to the technology, dissipating the fears of growing inequality, even speciation, between groups of people. Underlying all this moral handwringing over genetic engineering is the concern that genes really matter—that one's life chances are largely determined by the genes one carries. Good genes equal a bright future; bad genes entail a blighted future. Recent genetic research is showing that this view is wrong.

How so? By using outside interventions that regulate and enhance the performance of the genes that people already have. Such interventions will include new, precisely targeted pharmaceuticals that will change the activity of various genes and gene combinations in desired ways. For example, back in 1999 brain researcher Joe Tsien genetically engineered smart mice by giving them extra copies of the NR2B gene that encodes the receptor for NMDA that plays a role in laying down memories in the brain. The enhanced mice exposed to aversive stimuli learned to avoid them much faster than unenhanced mice.

Fast forward 10 years, and Tsien and his colleagues report that their further research on genetically engineered rodents has strengthened their finding that increasing the dose of NR2B gene improves memory. In a 2009 study in the journal PLoS One, they speculate, "Conceivably, our demonstration of genetic enhancement in both mice and rats via NR2B overexpression greatly strengthens the notion that the NR2B gene is a valid drug target for improving memory function in both normal brains and patients with Alzheimer's disease or mild cognitive impairment." So what intervention might enhance memory in normal brains? Tsien and his colleagues note that other research suggests that increasing the amount of magnesium in the brain boosts the effect of NR2B on memory.   

In addition, a January 2010 report in the journal Biological Psychiatry by European researchers found [PDF] that administering the antibiotic D-cycloserine offers a "promising pharmacological mechanism for facilitating declarative learning [the aspect of human memory that stores facts] in healthy people." Of course, magnesium and D-cycloserine may not ultimately work, but the prospects are good that interventions that will successfully enhance human memory will be uncovered. Other researchers are working on a neural prosthesis using microchips to mimic the memory-consolidation activities of the hippocampus. The point is that these enhancements will not require genetic engineering and can benefit and be administered to anyone.

Reversing aging is the killer app of biomedical research. Aging correlates with all kinds of nasty outcomes, including cancer, Alzheimer's disease, heart attacks, weaker muscles, strokes, thinner bones, lower libido, and the depressing list goes on until it ends in death. Researchers are studying the genetics of people who live to be 100 years old to uncover the genetic variants associated with longer life. The goal of the research is not to isolate the genes so that they can be installed as a way to boost life expectancy, but to identify the biochemical pathways [PDF] they modulate so that interventions can be devised for people who don't have the good fortune to carry these genes for extended longevity.

What sort of interventions? A 2009 study in the journal Nature found that dosing old mice with the immunosuppressant drug rapamycin extended their lifespans by about 10 percent. As the researchers suggested, "Rapamycin may extend lifespan by postponing death from cancer, by retarding mechanisms of aging, or both." The ends of the 46 chromosomes that bear the genes inside our cells are protected by caps called telomeres. As our cells divide the telomeres get shorter. Our cells stop dividing and become senescent when the telomeres have eroded away.

An article published this past January in Nature reported that reactivating the enzyme telomerase so that it lengthened the telomeres reversed aging in mice. But what about humans? Also this past January, researchers at the biotech company Sierra Sciences reported work [PDF] in the journal Rejuvenation Research showing that the nutraceutical TA-65 is the "first compound ever discovered that activates the enzyme telomerase in the human body." The Sierra Sciences press release notes, "Although TA-65 is probably too weak to completely arrest the aging process, it is the first telomerase activator recognized as safe for human use." Again, rapamycin and TA-65 may not work out, but they point the way toward postponing, if not overcoming, the fatal destiny that our genes naturally have in store for us. 

Genetically engineered inequality is a bioethical phantom. The truth is that biotechnological interventions will eventually enable nearly everyone to enhance their bodies and their brains. The good news is that as researchers learn more about the good and bad effects of our genes, the more we will be liberated from whatever tyranny they do exercise.

Disclosure: Sierra Sciences CEO Pierluigi Zappacosta is a member of the board of trustees of Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website.

Reason's Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution (Prometheus Books).