Back To The Future: A Genomics Story
Nowhere has technological progress advanced more rapidly, in my lifetime, than in genomic sciences. As a 16 year old in 2001, I bought my first cell phone and sequencing a human genome cost more than $100M. Seventeen years later, I’ve upgraded to a smartphone and I could get my entire genome sequenced for under $1,000. By 2035, some futurists predict that smartphones will have been replaced by augmented reality goggles and artificial intelligence will have put many of us out of a job.
The question is how will genomics impact our lives over the next 20 years?
Instead of setting out a series of predictions for genomics, I thought it would be fun to time travel 20 years to an imagined future for a conversation with myself*. What would future Alex have to say to present day Alex about progress in genomic sciences?
Note: the following account very likely does not reflect an actual future scenario. Scientific facts rooted in reality have been referenced. Everything else is speculation.
*A catastrophic time travel paradox is assumed not to have occurred.
Welcome to 2037:
Woah! You. Are. Bald.
That’s male pattern baldness. It’s genetic…just a few sequence variations in a hormone receptor…leave me alone.
I thought CRISPR would’ve put an end to all that?
Sure, after scientists solved the issues with CRISPR in the early days, they had the power to engineer any DNA sequence into pretty much any species.
Then why did you not get your baldness fixed?
(I’d forgotten how insecure I was in my 30s) Well, because there were bigger fish to fry.
Like curing diseases. In your time, for instance, scientists used CRISPR to snip viral HIV DNA out of the mouse genome. Now, they can do that in humans and cure people of AIDS. Similar approaches are being used to treat many diseases.
That’s good. I was concerned things would "go a bit Gattaca”—that CRISPR would be used to create designer babies. Chinese researchers stirred huge controversy in 2015, when they first used CRISPR in human embryos and the UK and US weren’t far behind.
Yeah, how best to use this power is still a complex issue. For me, the 2015 International Summit on Human Gene Editing was an important moment.
That’s when scientists and ethicists agreed to seek broad societal consensus for scientific progress?
Correct. History has shown us that abuses of genetics can lead to social control and discrimination. After all, a person’s genome is more than just A,G,C and Ts. It’s a story where imprints of the past and predictors of the future are laid out in the DNA sequence. There’s the potential to do good for people with that information and there’s the potential to do harm.
Canada passed a genetic non-discrimination law in March 2017. Albeit, after a few false starts.
And good legislation continues to be the best way to protect citizens’ rights to control access to their own genetic information, while also giving individuals the choice to benefit from genomic technologies.
So the future isn’t a perfect utopia, then?
Time travel makes me snacky. You got anything to eat?
I’ve got these sunflower seeds.
What were you expecting? You only travelled forward 20 years! Look at the label on the package. These seeds come from a genetically modified sunflower plant.
After the sunflower genome was finally cracked in 2017, researchers figured out which traits made plants more resistant to impacts of climate change, like drought and low-nutrient soils.
I didn’t think Canada required GM foods to be labelled?
It doesn’t, not even now. I picked these up from a recent trip to Europe, where labels have been mandatory since 2003. I got my first cell phone that year, I think.
Actually that was 2001. Do you have any bread?
I don’t eat bread anymore.
YOU DON’T EAT BREA…
Calm down. I had my gut microbiome done—you know, by sequencing the genomes of all the bacteria in my faeces.
You mean poop.
Whatever. What on earth do gut bacteria have to do with bread?!
I have lots of Proteobacteria and Enterobacteriaceae in my gut.
In English, please.
When I eat bread, my blood sugar goes higher than other people’s and comes back down slower, because of the types of bacteria in my gut. It puts me at a higher risk of getting diabetes or heart disease.
Get some new gut bacteria then. You remember Let Them Eat Dirt, the book by Brett Findlay?
Yeah, but I just couldn’t bring myself to put another person’s faeces into my own body. Easier to wait for a less gross solution to come along and cut out the bread.
I should get back to 2017. Do you have Tylenol? All this has given me a headache.
Have an aspirin instead.
What difference does it make?
I took a pharmacogenomic test, as well. Turns out, I have a small difference in my DNA sequence that causes me to break down the acetaminophen in Tylenol slower than most people do.
Huh? Maybe that’s why I get all sweaty when I take Tylenol. Thanks future me. I’m off to eat bread in the past. Byeeeee!
Foolish youth. He’ll learn.
Back in 2017:
Regardless of what happens in the future, the impact of genetics and genomic sciences on our lives will be substantial. Technological progress is driving costs down and the science forward, at a dizzying speed. Vast troves of genome sequencing data that have been building over the past 10 years are today being translated into diagnostic tests and personalized medicines. Companies that offer consumers insight into their own genomes are popping up all over the place. New science (e.g. CRISPR, GP-Write) is opening up new avenues of research.
But, amongst all this excitement and possibility, it is important to keep the implications in mind. The gene is the fundamental unit of biology. Like the atom is to physics, unlocking the gene’s secrets has given us great power and we must wield it responsibly. By learning more about genes and genomics, each of us can contribute to that effort. And if that means I have to continue on my slow march towards baldness, sigh, so be it.
To learn more about genes and genomics visit The Lab Zone in the newly revamped BodyWorks Gallery presented by Genome British Columbia. Genome British Columbia is a non-profit that generates social and economic benefits for British Columbians, through investment in genomics research projects and technology platforms. Genome British Columbia continues to support the formal education system province-wide, through the Geneskool educational outreach program.