Editing Our Genes Could Make Us Immune to Viruses
Walter Isaacson, a professor of history at Tulane, is the author of The Innovators and biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and Steve Jobs. He is working on a book about Jennifer Doudna and the inventors of CRISPR.
The current coronavirus plague will hasten our transition to the third great innovation revolution of modern times. These revolutions arose from the discovery, beginning just over a century ago, of the three fundamental kernels of our existence: the atom, the bit, and the gene.
The first half of the 20th century, beginning with Albert Einstein’s 1905 papers on relativity and quantum theory, featured a revolution driven by physics. Advances in basic science became, as always, the seed corn from which sprang useful inventions. In the fifty years following Einstein’s miracle year, his theories and those of fellow physicists led to atomic bombs and nuclear power, semiconductors and transistors, spaceships and GPS, lasers and radar.
The second half of the twentieth century was an information-technology era based on the idea that all information could be encoded by binary digits, known as bits, and all logical processes could be performed by circuits with on-off switches. In the 1950s, this led to the development of the microchip, the computer, and the internet. When these three innovations were combined, it led to the digital revolution.
Now we have entered a third and even more momentous scientific era: a life-science revolution driven by biotech. The basic science advances were the discoveries of the gene and of the molecules, DNA and RNA, that contain and implement its information. By the beginning of this century, we had the power to sequence and map our genes and those of every organism.
One consequential invention in this new revolution is a tool, known as CRISPR, that will allow us to edit genes. Like most inventions, it was born out of curiosity-driven basic science, in this case involving the longest-running and most vicious war on this planet. For three billion years, bacteria have struggled to fight off attacks by viruses, which are snippets of genetic material that reproduce by taking over the cells of living organisms. CRISPR systems are a wondrous method that bacteria came up with to remember, recognize, and destroy the genetic material of enemy viruses.
Which leads us to our own fight against the coronavirus. CRISPR tools are already being developed that will detect and, eventually, ward it off. But in a larger way, the coronavirus will focus the attention of a new generation of scientists and innovators. Just as the digital revolution drove innovation in the last half of the 20th century, the biotech revolution will drive the first half of the 21st century. Kids who study digital coding will be surpassed by those who study the code of life.
It will have at least three major components. First, an effort to fight viruses at the molecular level using RNA-guided genetic targeting devices (just like bacteria do). Our recurring viral plagues – MERS, SARS, Ebola, HIV/AIDS, and of course each new strand of the flu – shows how pitifully poor we have been at this. Second, discovering the underlying mechanisms of cancer and finding ways to personalize treatments of it. And third, editing our own genes. Gene-editing technology has the potential to make us immune to viruses and cancer. It can correct mutations that cause a wide array of disabilities, from sickle-cell anemia to congenital blindness. And here’s what will be the hard part, the one that will require not only scientists and innovators but also philosophers and humanists and well-informed citizens: it could have the potential (once we figure out whether it’s wise) to genetically enhance our bodies, our minds, and those of our children.
This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on March 28, 2020 and is reprinted here with permission of the author.
Walter Isaacson was born on May 20, 1952, in New Orleans. He is a graduate of Harvard College and of Pembroke College of Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He is a Professor of History at Tulane and an advisory partner at Perella Weinberg, a financial services firm based in New York City. A past CEO of the Aspen Institute, where he is now a Distinguished Fellow, he has also been the chairman of CNN and the editor of TIME magazine.
Isaacson’s most recent biography, Leonardo da Vinci (2017), offers new discoveries about Leonardo’s life and work, weaving a narrative that connects his art to his science. He is also the author of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (2014), Steve Jobs (2011), Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007), Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003), and Kissinger: A Biography (1992), and coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1986).
He is a host of the show “Amanpour and Company” on PBS and CNN, a contributor to CNBC, and host of the podcast “Trailblazers, from Dell Technologies.”