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Could upgraded DNA be in our future?

By Elizabeth Rayne

While no one is just going to put on a cape and fly to the moon outside superhero comics (and the billion-dollar movie franchises they spawn), there is a scientist who feels our DNA can have believable superpowers that aren’t just for flexing and flashing.

Dr. George Church is a Harvard professor and geneticist who is putting together a list of genetic mutations and alteration possibilities that could extend our lifespans and reverse the ravages of age and disease. Just taking a glance at his spreadsheet will blow your mind.

Hacking human genes is still a thing of the future, as proven the scandal involving CRISPR technology used on twin girls in utero. Church is instead carefully laying out the possibilities of such a future when gene editing becomes safer and subject to ethical guidelines.

What does “superhuman” even mean to someone whose work may not make us invincible, but a little less vulnerable someday?

“You could define superhuman or transhuman as an ability in modern humans that would be hard to achieve by our ancestors (or even comprehend),” Church told SYFY WIRE. “These would include being able to (a) see and build nano-objects, (b) fly around the world in 90 minutes and to the moon, (c) being able to see all wavelengths from gamma to radio, (d) having vast amounts of information including movies, navigation, communication in our pockets." 

Except we can now achieve this stuff with things like electron microscopes, and airborne space stations, and all the gizmos that emerged as ideas from the incredible human brain — and Church is aware of that.

“We have these already, and most of those would be hard to do with genetic changes,” he said. “What is left for genes seems weak by comparison: (e) resistance to few remaining infectious diseases, cancer, senescence, radiation, low gravity.”

Humanity should have low-cost, low-complexity technologies that boost traits like immunity and life span readily available, if you ask Church. This isn’t about having X-ray vision or turning into Wolverine. This is about switching on a gene mutation that could change the life of someone with a genetic disease, even if the consequence is something mildly negative. The mutation that increases bone density also makes you less buoyant in water. To someone with brittle bone disease, floating in a pool probably wouldn’t matter so much.

“An example of such enhancement is our global resistance to smallpox (via intentional extinction in the wild) which is available for free to all 7.7 billion of us and requiring not special instructions for use,” Church explained. “Extending healthy years of life for anyone who wants that, via aging reversal therapies, could be another example.”

When such procedures are actually safe to use on people, you have to wonder if this could potentially turn society in the direction of another Brave New World or Gattaca where your rank in society is determined by how much genetic enhancement you can afford. Church does not believe that is the case.

“It is up to us to make sure that the goal of equitable distribution is achieved as early as possible for each new technology,” he said. “My group has helped reduce the cost of reading whole human genomes by 10 million fold (while improving quality) and have begun making these available for free. Similar goals should be achievable for many other biotechnologies, since many work at very tiny scales and biological growth (in nature) is intrinsically nearly free and highly scalable.”

Maybe we should time-travel a few centuries forward just for this.