The Beetle Farm (Ch. 33) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 033

Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 33. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on December 2, 2018.

Several distinct threads are converging in this episode—my personal update, tech news and Chapter 33 of Bionic Bug. For my personal update, I just finished the first draft of Genomic Data, Book Three in the Lara Kinsley Series, which features topics such as genomic data, CRISPR, germ-line genetic engineering, in-vitro fertilization, designer babies, and China. Chapter 33 of Bionic Bug features Fiddler, our rogue scientist, explaining how and why he created bionic bugs; he used CRISPR and gene drives to modify the beetles to bite humans and spread disease. The big tech news last week came out of China.

  • Chinese scientists are creating CRISPR babies,” published in the MIT Technology Review on November 25.
    • We knew this was on the near-term horizon and in my novel, I anticipated the development coming from China.
    • In 2015, Chinese scientists modified human embryos for the purpose of curing genetic disease. Scientists in the U.S. have carried out similar experiments. Germ-line engineering, i.e., producing humans with edited genes has been banned in the U.S.
    • Germ-line engineering is fundamentally different from the kind of gene editing or gene therapies that show promise for curing disease in humans. This type of fix affects only the person whose genes are edited. Germ-line engineering—editing embryos—makes changes that are passed on to future generations.
    • CRISPR combined with in-vitro fertilization made genetically modified babies a theoretical possibility.
    • According to MIT Review, Statnews and the NY Times, this possibility is no longer theoretical.
    • Last week, Chinese scientists announced the birth of genetically modified twins who have been edited to be immune to the HIV virus
    • He Jiankui, on leave from Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, led the experiment.
    • Risks include unwanted mutations or children with mixed batches of cells edited in different ways. Also, “studies are already under way to edit the same gene in the bodies of adults with HIV.”
    • There are other issues with the study such as the utility of making humans immune to HIV when exposure to the virus is not pervasive, and there are simpler ways of protecting against infection. Some think the experiment is in the ethical gray zone between treatment and enhancement
    • This experiment has not yet been verified and a Chinese investigation is now underway.
  • Statnews provides some supplementary information in “What we know — and what we don’t — about the claim of world’s first gene-edited babies,” published on November 26.
    • The twin girls were born a few weeks ago. The parents consented to the experiment. The infants appear to be healthy.
    • The scientist’s home university has denounced the experiment.
    • The announcement has led to a major outcry across the scientific community.
    • The scientist claimed later in the week that another genetically modified child is on the way.
  • Are we a step closer to a future of designer babies as portrayed in the film Gattaca?
  • For more information, read “Gene Editing for ‘Designer Babies’? Highly Unlikely, Scientists Say,” published in the NY Times on August 4, 2017.
    • Researchers are getting closer to being able to correct single gene mutations that lead to genetic diseases
    • But it’s unlikely that we will be able to use gene editing to producer smarter, better looking, and more talented children any time soon.
    • “That’s because none of those talents arise from a single gene mutation, or even from an easily identifiable number of genes. Most human traits are nowhere near that simple.”
    • “Even with an apparently straightforward physical characteristic like height, genetic manipulation would be a tall order. Some scientists estimate height is influenced by as many as 93,000 genetic variations.”
    • This situation could change over time as scientists learn more and more about the genome and build vast repositories of genomic data.
    • “But about 10,000 medical conditions are linked to specific mutations, including Huntington’s disease, cancers caused by BRCA genes, Tay-Sachs disease, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and some cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Repairing the responsible mutations in theory could eradicate these diseases from the so-called germ-line, the genetic material passed from one generation to the next. No future family members would inherit them.”
    • So the question remains—will we as humans be open to the prospect of germ-line engineering to eradicate the world from these genetic diseases?
    • If the answer is yes, we’ll open the door to much more.
  • Let’s turn to Bionic Bug. Last week, Lara found Stepanov searching through Sully’s storage unit. And then she got knocked over the head. Let’s find out what happens next.

The views expressed on this podcast are my own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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