CRISPR-Cas9 Genome Editing: the Rise of the Super Elite, China and Personalized Bio-weapons

Continuing from my last post, the Cyprus Experiment:

…However, if you start playing with genes in order to create the perfect society…that becomes another thing alltogether.

Imagine this: genes editing can lead to  a situation in which you can choose from a catalog the physical characteristics and personality type of your offspring. “Yes, I would like to order the Big Blue package please.”

I haven’t chose this name randomly, it’s a reference to the Belgian Blue cow which is a breed of cattle renowned for its muscularity, selective breeding led to “double muscling” due to a mutation in the myostatin gene. The whole process of selective breeding can now be replaced with genome editing.


One pertinent question is: do you want to mess with the free will and choices of your offspring? What happens if you order the athlete package but the future person doesn’t really want to be an athlete? What happens if you order the intellectual package but the future person doesn’t really want to be an intellectual? This can take the meaning of parents living through children meaning to another level: if I wasn’t good at sports in school I can live through my son who will be good at sports.

There is the risk of having a bunch of clones walking around, people looking the same and behaving the same. No parent would settle for the lesser model, every parent wants the best for his child. What if the price is too high? Will parents settle for lesser models? Will the world eventually evolve and split into two types of people solely because there were two types of socio-economic classes at the beginning, the ones that could afford the premium package and the ones that couldn’t?

There is the risk that the upper socio-economic classes might irreversibly detach from the rest of the world due to a upwards self-enforcing spiral of wealth and great genetics. Think about the royalty and aristocracy of the past. What prevented them from taking off and becoming vastly different from the rest of humanity is genetic variance and inbreeding. Greedy royals wanted the power to stay in the family, that’s why they preferred to marry withing the family. Inbreeding led to severely physically and mentally incapacitated leaders like Charles II of Spain. The Habsburg Jaw: Charles had such a severe case of Habsburg Jaw, a mandibular prognathism trait popular in the Habsburg family, that he couldn’t eat. He died childless. Whole royal and noble families went extinct not because of war or some other reason but because of childless heirs. The very powerful and wealthy de Medici family ended in 1737 when Gian Gastone de’ Medici died without leaving any heir.

Well, genetic editing has the potential to solve all these issues and to let happen what didn’t happened before. Of course, there is also the element of chaos that always hides beneath the surface of things. Genetic editing might lead to problems that are not immediately observable. For example, we know that high IQ persons also tend to have mental illnesses. Genetic editing might lead to improvements in one area but might also be a black swan and lead to weakness in other areas.

The black swan theory describes events that come as a surprise, have major effects and after they happen become rationalized by hindsight. Examples of black swan events: financial crises, the personal computer, the rise of the Internet, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the crash of airplanes because of metal fatigue.

Metal fatigue occurs when you apply load and stress to a material causing it to weaken. Is there something similar that can be applied to the genome as a material? We might live to find out that there is something called Genome Fatigue.

Black swan events caused by genetic editing might have a wide series of effects: infertility, the heirs might find that they are the last ones in their lineage and boom, the new royal and noble families go extinct again, neurological diseases at a later age, new exotic genetic diseases that didn’t existed before.

CRISPR-Cas9 editing
CRISPR-Cas9 editing. Click picture for better resolution. Source: J LEVIN W

I’m just riffing here, using my imagination and doing some thought experiments. If I’m thinking this then is very probable that someone else also did it or will do it.  For example, totalitarian governments like China (they are leading the way in genetic editing with crispr/cas9 by the way) can use genome altering to silently mark their subjects with special GTAC DNA sequences. The DNA contains portions of “junk” DNA, noncoding portions that do not encode protein sequences. In other words, they don’t do anything, so it’s quite possible to slip in a few sequences more in the DNA that can go undetected and remain silent.

Why would anyone want to mark someone with a special, unique DNA sequence? Better tracking would be one answer. One strand of hair can lead straight to your address. China is great at tracking, controlling, Internet filtering, censoring and is also leading the world in AI and facial recognition surveillance. The law enforcement in China has now facial recognition glasses. Another answer is that highly personalized bio-weapons can be created in order to target specific individuals: adversaries, dissidents, traitor spies and so on. Russia has a track of doing these kinds of jobs, not long ago it targeted a former defector Russian spy (Skripal) and his daughter with a nerve agent.

There is already a huge increasing gap between the wealthiest and the rest of the world: the top 1% has owned more wealth than the rest of the world’s population since 2015. The rise of biohacking, genome editing an AI has the potential to take this gap to another level.

 

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