On Tuesday night I attended a book talk and signing by my friend, Daniel Suarez. His new book, Change Agent, explores a future where genetic editing enables humans to control evolution of the species. The story is set in the year 2045.
Dan began the evening with a talk about the future potential of CRISPR and DNA editing. This was news to me. He mentioned the ability of obtaining a DNA editing lab for less than $1000. He suggested that individuals could edit the DNA of their children. Those edits could transfer to future generations. A quick Google search confirms that experiments have been carried out in fixing sickle cell anemia, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and immune system cells.
Dan forecasted that there could be concerns about corporations claiming ownership of the DNA of individuals. If parents received genetic editing provided by a company to fix issues for their children, then those children might be responsible for paying the company for the rest of their lives. There may be many questions and challenges because of who makes the edits and who owns edits of DNA.
CRISPR offers multiple ways to affect the future. Mosquitoes can be genetically modified in what is called “gene driving,” to lead to the end of a species of the insects that spread a particular disease like the malarial parasite. Crops can be changed, the DNA of rice can be modified and combined with DNA of other plants to become more resistant to salt water, or to require less water. Obviously, people will be raising ethical questions about some of these uses of DNA editing.
One scary scenario Dan mentioned was how individuals or groups around the world, who are angry at another group, could obtain a DNA editing lab very cheaply. Those angry people may design “gene driving” materials to attack their enemies. Perhaps a government agency should be monitoring our DNA in a public health process in order to detect if we are being attacked.
I found the talk about CRISPR to be interesting, and somewhat disturbing. For example, humans could splinter and diverge in different directions, through the modification of some people’s DNA. Dan says his fiction writing is not meant to be doomsday forecasting, but, I can’t stop thinking about it, and my mind goes right there. He says if we think about the future and watch for certain trends, we have the chance to control the evolution of the human species.
Change Agent became available on Tuesday, April 18, 2017. One review says, “The depth and sophistication of Suarez’s dystopian world—not to mention his facility at making complex science intelligible to the nonexpert—rivals anything Michael Crichton ever did.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)