Jurassic World: Dominion is hyperbolic Hollywood entertainment at its finest, with an action-packed storyline that refuses to let reality get in the way of a good story. Yet, just like its predecessors, it offers an underlying cautionary tale of technological hubris that is very real.
As I say in my book Movies of the future1993 by Steven Spielberg jurassic park, based on Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel, didn’t shy away from tackling the dangers of unfettered entrepreneurship and irresponsible innovation. Scientists at the time were closing in on the ability to manipulate DNA in the real world, and the book and film captured emerging concerns that playing God with nature’s genetic code could have devastating consequences. This was captured by one of the film’s protagonists, Dr Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum, as he said: “Your scientists were so concerned about whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they had to.”
In the last iteration of jurassic park franchise, society accepts the consequences of ill-conceived innovations at best. A litany of “could” over “should” has led to a future in which resurrected and redesigned dinosaurs roam free, and humanity’s dominance as a species is threatened.
At the heart of these films are questions that are more topical than ever: have the researchers learned the lesson of jurassic park and sufficiently closed the gap between “could” and “should”? Or will the science and technology of DNA manipulation continue to outpace any consensus on how to use them ethically and responsibly?
(Re)designing the genome
The first draft of the human genome was released to much fanfare in 2001, paving the way for scientists to read, redesign and even rewrite complex genetic sequences.
However, existing technologies were time-consuming and expensive, putting genetic manipulation beyond the reach of many researchers. The first draft of the human genome cost around $300 million, and subsequent whole-genome sequences just under $100 million, an amount prohibitive for all but the best-funded research groups. However, as existing technologies were refined and new ones came online, small labs – and even students and “bio DIY” enthusiasts – could more freely experiment with reading and writing the genetic code.
In 2005, bioengineer Drew Endy proposed that it is possible to work with DNA the same way engineers work with electronic components. Just as electronics designers are less concerned with the physics of semiconductors than with the components that depend on them, Endy argued that it should be possible to create standardized DNA-based parts called “biobricks” that scientists could use without needing to be experts. in their underlying biology.
The work of Endy and others was the foundation of the emerging field of synthetic biology, which applies engineering and design principles to genetic manipulation.
Scientists, engineers, and even artists have begun to view DNA as biological code that can be digitized, manipulated, and reimagined in cyberspace much like digital photos or videos. This in turn opened the door to the reprogramming of plants, microorganisms and fungi to produce pharmaceutical drugs and other useful substances. Modified yeast, for example, produces the meaty taste of veggie Impossible Burgers.
Despite the growing interest in gene editing, the greatest impediment to the imagination and vision of early synthetic biology pioneers was always the speed and cost of editing technologies.
Then CRISPR changed everything.
The CRISPR revolution
In 2020, scientists Jennifer Doudna and Emanuelle Charpentier won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on a revolutionary new gene-editing technology that allows researchers to precisely cut out and replace DNA sequences in genes: CRISPR.
CRISPR was fast, cheap and relatively easy to use. And it freed the imagination of DNA coders.
More than any previous advance in genetic engineering, CRISPR has made it possible to apply techniques from digital coding and systems engineering to biology. This cross-fertilization of ideas and methods has led to breakthroughs ranging from using DNA to store computer data to creating 3D “DNA origami” structures.
CRISPR has also paved the way for scientists to explore redesigning entire species, including bringing animals back from extinction.
Gene drives use CRISPR to insert a piece of genetic code directly into an organism‘s genome and ensure that specific traits are inherited by all subsequent generations. Scientists are currently experimenting with this technology to control disease-carrying mosquitoes.
Despite the potential benefits of the technology, gene drives raise serious ethical questions. Even when applied to clear public health threats like mosquitoes, these questions are not easy to navigate. They become even more complex when considering hypothetical applications in people, such as increasing athletic performance in future generations.
Gain of function
Advances in gene editing have also made it easier to genetically modify the behavior of individual cells. It’s at the heart of biofabrication technologies that re-engineer simple organisms to produce useful substances ranging from aviation fuel to food additives.
It is also at the center of controversies surrounding genetically modified viruses.
Since the start of the pandemic, there have been rumors that the virus that causes Covid-19 is the result of genetic experiments gone wrong. Although these rumors remain unsubstantiated, they have renewed debate about the ethics of gain-of-function research.
Gain-of-function research uses DNA editing techniques to alter how organisms function, including increasing the ability of viruses to cause disease. Scientists do this to predict and prepare for potential mutations in existing viruses that increase their ability to cause harm. However, such research also raises the possibility of dangerously enhanced virus being released outside the laboratory, either accidentally or intentionally.
At the same time, scientists’ growing mastery of biological source code is what allowed them to rapidly develop the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines to fight COVID-19. By precisely engineering the genetic code that instructs cells to produce harmless versions of viral proteins, vaccines are able to prime the immune system to react when it encounters the actual virus.
Responsible handling of biological source code
As far-sighted as Michael Crichton was, it’s unlikely he could have imagined how much scientists’ abilities to design biology have advanced over the past three decades. Bringing back extinct species, while an active area of research, remains fiendishly difficult. However, in many respects, our technologies are significantly more advanced than those jurassic park and subsequent films.
But what have we done on the accountability front?
Fortunately, the consideration of the social and ethical aspect of gene editing has gone hand in hand with the development of science. In 1975, scientists agreed on approaches to ensure that emerging recombinant DNA research would be carried out safely. From the outset, the ethical, legal and social dimensions of science have been integrated into the human genome project. Bio-DIY communities have been at the forefront of research into safe and responsible gene editing. And social responsibility is an integral part of synthetic biology competitions.
Yet, as gene editing becomes more powerful and accessible, a community of well-meaning scientists and engineers probably won’t be enough. While the jurassic park movies take dramatic license in their depiction of the future, they get one thing right: even with good intentions, bad things happen when you mix powerful technologies with scientists who haven’t been trained to think about consequences of their actions – and haven’t thought to ask the experts who have.
This is perhaps the permanent message of Jurassic World: Dominion– that despite incredible advances in genetic design and engineering, things can go wrong if we don’t embrace the development and use of technology in a socially responsible way.
The good news is that we still have time to close the gap between “could” and “should” in the way scientists redesign and rearrange the genetic code. But like Jurassic World: Dominion reminds moviegoers, the future is often closer than it seems.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Image credit: Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz / Unsplash