The Coming Biological Revolution (Archive)
Originally posted February 7, 2018.
Jacob O’Connor is a graduate student working at the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington who studies protein structure and function using computer models. His research involves designing small proteins, called peptides, with features that will make them better able to act as drugs.
Human history is often marked by periods of rapid growth and development sparked by advances in specific areas of technology. We are living in the tail end of the Digital Revolution. The rise of digital computers and record keeping has transformed our economy and society. The ability to automate data collection and analysis has helped scientists learn more about the world than ever before.
The field of structural biology has especially benefited from the ability to create shared databases that anyone can access and search. One of the most widely used is the Protein Data Bank, which catalogues the shapes of every protein that scientists have imaged. Naturally occurring proteins have an incredible range of functions from fighting disease, to contracting your muscles, to breaking down molecules in your gut. They can do all of these different jobs because proteins can take on many different shapes, but what caused them to take on different shapes used to be a mystery. Because there is now a massive database of protein shapes biologists can analyze all of these shapes to generate rules about what causes proteins to take on their shapes and do their jobs. Using those rules scientists can design entirely new proteins that do new jobs. Designed proteins can hopefully be used to do the jobs of natural proteins but tailored to solve problems nature hasn’t solved yet, like fighting HIV or the efficient production of biofuels.
This technology is far from perfected and even once it is, creating a designer protein takes a lot of research. What’s more, this technique is limited to producing proteins in simple cells from bacteria or yeast. We can’t create a designer protein that is a part of a multicellular organism’s biology, so we can’t treat genetic based diseases, like cancer. At least we couldn’t, until about five years ago.
In 2012 Jennifer Doudna, a researcher at UC Berkeley, modified a naturally occurring system so that it was able to selectively edit genetic information. This tool, called CRISPR, has continued to be refined and is now able to modify human DNA. Modifying DNA blindly is extremely risky and complicated, so on its own this tool would probably have limited use. But as we can now predict the shapes of proteins, we can predict how modifying DNA will influence biology. We have reached a point where scientists can begin to purposefully and intelligently design human biology and take control of human evolution.
It’s important to note that we are still a long way away from the level of technology shown in science-fiction films like Gattaca. It will probably be decades before scientists perfect the complementary tools of protein design and human gene editing. Even then, such projects will take a great deal of time and effort. However, thanks to the advances made over the last decade, those days are on the horizon. Before they arrive it is essential that we, as a society, come to terms with the new power and responsibility humanity will wield. The National Institute of Health has firm rules to ensure ethical genetic research, but these rules are primarily determined by scientists and bioethicists. The kind of repercussions this technology will have on everybody are going to be massive, perhaps even to the point of redefining what it means to be human. It is essential that the public starts to become informed and engaged in these discussions about how to use these tools ethically. The Biological Revolution is coming and we need to be prepared for it.