Interview: Sci-Fi Author Dan Koboldt Talks About 'Okja' and the Future of Genetics

Friday, 09 June 2017 - 4:07PM
Friday, 09 June 2017 - 4:07PM
Interview: Sci-Fi Author Dan Koboldt Talks About 'Okja' and the Future of Genetics
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Image credit: Dan Koboldt
Anybody who's ever watched a sci-fi movie with friends knows that half the fun of walking out of the theater is arguing over which of the movie's inevitable (and numerous) sins against science is the most ridiculous—whether it's exploring a new, uncharted world without a helmet (like the Alien franchise) or having starfighters screaming by in the silent, airless vacuum of space (Star Wars). For these kinds of arguments, it's always good to have an expert on hand. Dan Koboldt is one such person.

Koboldt is a genetics researcher and fantasy/science fiction author from the Midwest who works for the Institute for Genomic Medicine at Nationwide Children's Hospital, where he and his colleagues use next-generation DNA sequencing technologies to uncover the genetic basis of various diseases. He has co-authored more than 70 publications in Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other scientific journals.

So yes, he's a qualified nerd. We sat down with Dan to talk about his work with genetics, his writing, and his pet peeves when it comes to sci-fi.
Outer Places: Tell me a bit about yourself and your work as a research scientist, as well as an author of sci-fi/fantasy.
Dan Koboldt: I work as a geneticist for a major children's hospital in Ohio. We use so-called "next-generation DNA sequencing"—an evolution of the technologies that were used for the Human Genome Project—to study the genetic basis of inherited diseases...Essentially, my job is to identify the genes underlying severe diseases to help improve their diagnosis, management, and treatment.
I'm best known for Gateways to Alissia, my epic fantasy series with Harper Voyager (HarperCollins). It's about a Las Vegas magician who infiltrates a secret medieval world that was discovered—and kept secret—by a powerful corporation. The first installment, The Rogue Retrieval, was published in 2016 and the sequel, The Island Deception, was just published this year.
OP: What got you interested in speculative fiction? Do you have a top three of favorite authors or filmmakers?
Koboldt: I've been reading science fiction and fantasy for as long as I can remember. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien was my first foray into fantasy, but it was Lord of the Rings that got me well and truly hooked on the genre. The first science fiction book I read was probably something by Robert Heinlein. My favorite series of all time is probably Dune by Frank Herbert, and that includes the later books written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. Of course, I'm also paying attention to the generation of current SF/F authors, people like Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss, and Chuck Wendig.
OP: One of the major breakthroughs in genetics to hit the news recently was the claim from New Scientist that Chinese scientists had a success rate of 10% in editing the genes of normal embryos, potentially paving the road for preventing genetic defects—or opening the door for eugenics. What are your thoughts on CRISPR and the ethical issues of gene editing? 
Koboldt: From a research point of view, I'm excited about the potential of technologies like CRISPR/Cas9. The ability to make specific changes to DNA in living cells will help us understand the function of different genes and how certain genetic changes may contribute to disease...with CRISPR/Cas9, we can introduce that specific mutation into cells or a model organism (like a laboratory mouse) to test whether or not it has a measurable effect. That's a game-changer for sure.

As you pointed out, some researchers are exploring the potential of CRISPR/Cas9 to correct genetic defects in human embryos. This makes a lot of people nervous, and so many nations have agreed to a moratorium on genome editing of human embryos...China did not agree to the moratorium, which is why most of the current studies on human embryos are coming from Chinese groups. 
As someone who studies rare diseases in children, I understand the allure of a technique that could correct severe genetic defects in disease patients. It would be wonderful to reach a point where we can use genome editing to cure or prevent disease...I think we should proceed, but with caution.
OP: The upcoming film Okja is all about a genetically engineered animal designed to help mediate the global food crisis by using less resources (despite being the size of a hippopotamus). Do you think this is a feasible solution, and would it be possible to create something like Okja?
Koboldt: I think it might be possible to create something like that, but I doubt it's the answer to the world food crisis. I haven't seen the film, but "animal" means meat, which comes at a considerably higher carbon cost than edible plants. But let's say that, for the sake of speculation, one could create an animal that produced meat with very few resources. My question is this: will people eat it? There are millions of people who won't even eat genetically altered corn because they think it's going to give them cancer or take over their minds or something. 

It seems to me that a more likely solution is applying new technologies to improve the yields, disease resistance, and drought tolerance of existing food crops. I'm not the only one who thinks that; the agri-biotech industry is one of the biggest players in genomics (and a multi-billion dollar industry). Of course, serial improvements to corn, soy, rice, and other vital crops aren't very exciting to the science fiction writer in me. So I say, bring on the edible hippos!
OP: The classic sci-fi film GATTACA imagines a future in which genetic discrimination is widespread and humans are sorted into different life paths based on their genes. Do you think that's a realistic image of the future? Are there things that can't be quantified by a person's genetics?
Koboldt: What a wonderful question! I love the movie, and one thing they did well (in my opinion) was representing people's genetic future in terms of probabilities instead of certainties. I think that we may reach a point where we can predict much of a person's health somewhat accurately. However, many of the conditions that create a huge burden on human lives (not to mention healthcare systems) are influenced by non-genetic factors. Let's take two of the big ones for the Western world: heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Both of them have known genetic factors, but things like diet and exercise are important as well. 
Thus, I don't see that genetics will ever have complete predictive power. And I certainly hope it won't be the basis for systematic discrimination as it was in the movie. We can and should do better in our futuristic society.

OP: A recurring concept in sci-fi, especially books and games like Dune and Assassin's Creed, is the idea that we inherit memories of our ancestor's lives in our genetic code. Is there any truth behind this?
Koboldt: As far as I know, inheritance of intact memories has never been proven. However, there are mechanisms by which parents can pass along acquired information to their children. The best-known example is parental imprinting, in which certain regions of the genome preferentially activate the copy from mom (maternal imprinting) or dad (paternal imprinting)...We (scientists) think of it more as a means by which adaptation to environmental changes can be transmitted to offspring, but one can imagine this as a basis for imprinted memories as well. There's still much about epigenetics—and genetics, for that matter—that we don't yet understand. 

What are some the misconceptions or myths you run into when it comes to genetics and genomics?
Koboldt: There are many, but I'll share two of my pet peeves. First, people often oversimplify the inheritance of complex traits like physical appearance, behavior, and susceptibility to disease. On one hand, as a parent, I know how much children seem to inherit from their parents. They look like us, they act like us, they share our likes and dislikes. On the other hand, as a geneticist, I'm aware that most of these are complex traits. Eye color is a great example. 

My second pet peeve is the misconception that DNA mutations are a good thing. This is the trope in which someone exposed to radiation, carcinogens, or other things that cause mutations and comes out of it with a superpower. There are a couple of problems with this scenario...the body of an adult human comprises millions of cells, each of which has a copy of the genome. When mutations occur, they generally affect only one cell, not all of them (as we might expect if it conferred some new ability). Sometimes that mutation will give the cell a selective advantage that causes it to grow and divide continuously, giving rise to more and more mutated cells. But the result isn't a superhero power; it's a tumor.

Where do you think genetics is headed in the next 20-30 years?
Koboldt: That seems like such a long time, given the pace of discovery that our field is enjoying right now. I expect that we'll unravel the genetic basis of the majority of human traits, particularly susceptibility to disease and response to treatment. We should see a significant expansion of genetic testing as a result, possibly to the point at which every newborn undergoes genome sequencing at birth. It follows that your genetic information would provide a means to assess your risk for diseases, take steps to prevent them, and identify the best treatment options should they occur. Personalized medicine is the name for this, and it's the ultimate goal of human genetics. Within two or three decades, I think we should be able to make it.

You can visit Dan on his website, and check out his Facebook and Twitter!
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