"We're all here because we want to be the first humans able to fly."
"And we also want to live forever, see through walls, and shoot lasers from our eyeballs," the Ukrainian scientist tells me with a totally straight face. "But that's all science-fiction nonsense for now. So in the meantime, we're just making yogurt with an anti-aging protein, and things like that."
We're standing in the attic of a bicycle repair shop in Somerville, Massachusetts, where a group of local scientists and curious hobbyists have built a do-it-yourself laboratory for homegrown biology experiments.
The space is strewn with secondhand equipment, all scavenged and salvaged from the dumpsters of nearby universities and major pharmaceutical companies. Someone even found a way to use a breast pump to filter out bacteria samples. Yeah.
But as wild as this all may sound, it's hardly the most remarkable thing to come out of the life science revolution that's sweeping across the world.
Recent advancements in biotech have made it easier than ever to manipulate and edit DNA with shocking accuracy.
At the forefront of this biological renaissance is a little thing scientists call CRISPR-Cas9, often shortened to just plain ol' CRISPR. It's a system that we pretty much stole from certain bacteria that uses enzymes and something called guide RNA to target and cut sequences of DNA.
But that's all kinds of confusing for non-science-y types, so think of it like this: DNA is full of information that tells a story, like a book. Previously, if we wanted to change any part of this DNA-book, we had to chop up random sections with our metaphorical scissors, or splash white-out on the pages, trying to scribble in new notes wherever we could. Sure, it got the job done sometimes. But it was also pretty messy and inefficient.
The CRISPR system offers a new kind of "find-and-replace" feature. Now we can take our DNA-book and say, "OK, CRISPR, please find that sentence that specifically says, 'Harry met Hagrid.'" Then we can tell it to cut out that particular sentence and either get rid of it entirely or add our own new, much cooler sentence in its place. (Like "Harry met Hagrid and then they high-fived and it was so epic that they destroyed Voldemort and everyone was awesome.")
Now imagine that instead of just rewriting their own derivative Harry Potter fanfic, scientists can use this "find-and-replace" feature to turn specific genes "on" or "off," or even add new sequences of base pairs into the genome. This makes it easier than ever to go in and splice, add, or change one little piece of genetic information and see what happens.
"It's like a toolkit, essentially," explained Joanne Kamens, executive director of Addgene. "It's like having just the right screwdriver we never had, and it's allowing scientists to create hundreds of new tools and making everything exponentially faster."
This kind of super-accurate gene editing — and genetic synthesis in general — have become more accessible in the past few years.
CRISPR might be the prom queen of the biggest labs, but there are other similar versions of this kind of precision gene-editing technology — like the methods that my Ukrainian friend was using in that attic. And these tools are collectively changing the world as we know it, in attics and labs all over the world.
Here are five of the most fascinating inventions and discoveries we've seen in biotech to date:
1. Gene editing could help us limit, or maybe even destroy, diseases like malaria and cancer.
Now that we can slice into DNA with alarming accuracy, we can target exactly where diseases exist in the body and how drugs get delivered to kill those diseases. It's like a microbiological version of "Mission: Impossible" when you're trying to defuse a bomb — gene editing tells you exactly which wire to cut, without the risk of blowing up the building (which in this case is a human body).
Scientists at the University of California San Francisco, for example, have found a way to turn human T cells into hyper-efficient disease-killing machines. Similarly, at Temple University, researchers are using CRISPR to literally cut HIV out of live subjects. Pretty neat, huh?
As for those pesky mosquito-born illnesses plaguing our warming world, CRISPR has already made it easier to identify diseases such as Zika, malaria, and West Nile in patients and hosts alike — and some scientists hope to use gene editing to remove the disease-carrying capability from the mosquito genome entirely, destroying them at the source.
2. This same application is revolutionizing how we study mental health, too.
Scientists at MIT have already used gene editing to create lab mice with autism and OCD so they can better understand what causes those conditions and how best to treat them.
If they can create those conditions, they might be able to un-create them, too, by essentially flipping a switch on the problematic genes. (The only trick is figuring out with certainty which specific genes out of the billions in our body are causing the problems, which is easier said than done.)
3. It could also help us bring back the wooly mammoth or any other number of crazy chimera breeds.
Yup: Scientists at Harvard University successfully spliced wooly mammoth DNA into elephant cells. This is just on a cellular level so far, mind you; no one's prepared to go all "Jurassic Park" without looking into all the potential ramifications of such a project.
But, I mean, you knew this was coming, right? As cool and generally comforting as these other remarkable projects have been, we're still talking about genetic engineering, so of course there'd be some kind of super-powered kaiju-animal hybrids in the cards.
In China, scientists have already used CRISPR to breed dogs with twice the muscle mass by simply deleting one gene from their DNA. And in Boston, they've found a way to modify pig organs to make them compatible with human bodies in need of transplant donors.
And if you're wondering about the practical applications and ethical justifications of these kinds of projects, well ... those are totally valid things to be concerned about. But scientists are actively engaged in those discussions, and if it makes you feel any better, we're probably still a long way away from creating fully customizable mature synthetic humans. Probably.
4. Gene editing could also help to revamp the entire agriculture industry — without the use of any off-putting genetic additives.
GMOs get a bad wrap. But gene editing is different from, say, adding a bit of flounder DNA into a tomato, which is why the FDA recently approved the first CRISPR-modified mushroom for human consumption.
These specially designed mushrooms have a greater resistance to browning — again, not because of any scary-sounding chemicals or foreign genes, but simply because biologists found a way to isolate and shut off the naturally occurring genes that caused the mushrooms to turn brown after you cut into them.
That's it. Really. Nothing scary about it.
This method is also working to create disease-resistant plants, which is how a team at Seoul National University is trying to save the banana. Because why bother introducing pesticides or foreign genetic material when you can just poke at the DNA that the plant already has to improve its nutrient content and help it survive under less-than-ideal conditions? It's not quite "natural" in the traditional sense, but it's also not so different from the exchange and selective breeding of crops that's been going on for centuries.
Just, ya know — easier, and cooler-sounding.
5. But perhaps most importantly, gene editing is lowering the bar for scientific research and making it accessible to everyone.
Until recently, a lot of genetic and biotech data was protected behind intellectual property laws and institutional restrictions. But now? Anyone can buy an all-in-one CRISPR starter kit online or order a plasmid straight from a place like Addgene for a mere $65 and see what they can do with it ... just like those guys in the Somerville attic.
"It's like designing apps" for smartphones, said DeskGen's A.J. Ajetunmobi. DeskGen is a biotech startup that offers free open-source desktop gene-editing software, allowing anyone to design an experiment from anywhere in the world.
"People can focus on fixing problems instead of learning how to code," he said. "In life sciences, we're still stuck teaching people how to code. It's hard to teach that and still keep minds open."
"Diversity of perspective makes everything better. People are so much more innovative when they're not coming at it from a specific overhead," Ajetunmobi added.
The possibilities for progress are endless as long as the opportunities are available to everyone — not just the pharmaceutical companies who can afford to pay millions for special equipment and data.
"The barriers to entry [in biotech] are significant," Ajetunmobi told me with an eyeroll and a laugh, before pointing out that it would be logistically difficult for an individual — say, a 30-year-old writer who is me — to obtain all the necessary plasmids and parts to breed a personal army of altruistic disease-resistant pig-human hybrid super-farmers with laser vision and flight capabilities.
"But now, there's nothing technically stopping anyone from experimenting and exploring."
Personally, I decided to keep it simple and stick with the DIY bioluminescent yeast starter kit.
I'll leave the cool sci-fi-sounding progress to the pros (or to my new friends trying to find the fountain of youth in yogurt). But it's still nice to know that the opportunity is out there for anyone eager enough to give it a try.
Who knows? Maybe that 14-year-old kid next door will find a way to make pigs fly sooner than we think.