The Science of Sci-Fi: How Science Fiction Predicted the Future of Genetics
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Since the golden age of science fiction, many authors have predicted the future with surprising accuracy. Interstellar travel might still be out of reach, but other far-future extrapolations by science fiction authors may soon be realized, particularly in the field of genetics.
Right now, we can sequence an entire human genome in about five days, at a cost of $1,000. Genome editing technologies like CRISPR/Cas allow us to edit DNA sequences with increasing precision. In other words, we're already living in a sci-fi future when it comes to genetics. Let's see how well some of those authors did.
We might as well begin with Dune, one of my favorite sci-fi series. The Bene Gesserit are all over genetics, most notably with their selective breeding program aimed at creating the Kwisatz Haderach. But the Tleilaxu genetic engineering capabilities may not be far off. We can't duplicate a full-grown person along with his or her experiences—i.e. create a ghola—but designer babies are coming.
Earlier this year, a team of researchers announced the successful genetic modification of human embryos to correct a genetic defect. This work was groundbreaking for two reasons: first, because it was performed on viable human embryos, and second, because of the efficiency and precision the researchers achieved. I expect we'll see the first implantation of genetically altered embryos within ten years.
This raises the question of whether genome engineering might be used to practice the eugenics and genetic determinism imagined in the movie GATTACA, and to some extent in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. I think that such possibilities are remote. While correcting a single-gene defect in an embryo is straightforward, most of the traits that we might like to modify by design—such as intelligence, appearance, and physical prowess—involve dozens or hundreds of genes. It's a tall order.
But let's be honest-you came here to learn how soon we'll be able to engineer dinosaurs like in Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. Two recent studies have shown it's possible to isolate protein fragments from dinosaur fossils, but the DNA was long gone. The oldest animal DNA sequence generated so far is that of a horse that's around 500,000 years old. To get DNA from dinosaurs, which died off more than 60 million years ago, you'd need a time machine.