The Science and Fiction of Genetic Augmentation
Another way in which humans might be “improved” is through genetic engineering. This involves the alteration of genes: the sequences in DNA that produce a physical trait. Unlike technological augmentation, genetic augmentation has the advantage of using the amazingly designed biology already in place in living organisms. It simply alters the instructions so that the body itself forms new or different structures.
Genetic engineering has also been well-explored in science fiction. In the original Star Trek episode “Space Seed,” the crew of the Enterprise must deal with the villainous Khan (played by Ricardo Montalbán). Khan is a genetically engineered human with physical and mental abilities far exceeding those of ordinary men. This makes him very difficult to defeat. The supervillain returned in the second Star Trek movie: The Wrath of Khan.
The Outer Limits episode, “The Sixth Finger,” depicts the story of a man who participates in a genetic engineering experiment. The experiment alters the man’s DNA, artificially “evolving” him into an advanced superhuman with telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Genetic augmentation to produce advanced humans was also explored in the sci-fi series Fringe, in which enhanced superhumans from the future are able to travel back in time.
Are such advancements actually possible? Can we improve the intelligence and physical abilities of people by making changes to their DNA? Could it be as simple as identifying and inserting the genes for high intelligence, creativity, and athletic prowess? Could we also remove the genes responsible for aggression, hate, wickedness, and so on? The science of genetics has made tremendous advancements in the last few decades. But the issues are more complex than many people assume.
The Search for the Blue Rose
The nuances of genetics are illustrated in a fascinating experiment that began in the early 1990s. The goal was to create a blue rose – a rose that was genetically modified to produce blue petals. In naturally occurring species of roses, the most common petal colors are red, white, and pink. Less common colors include yellow, orange, and green. However, blue roses do not exist in nature, and no hybridization of existing species has ever produced a blue rose. Blue roses can be made by dyeing white roses with a blue pigment, but roses do not produce blue petals on their own. The reason was apparently simple: no species of rose has a gene to produce the blue pigment delphinidin – the chemical that causes many other species of flowers to have blue petals.
Conversely, petunias do have the genes to produce delphinidin – resulting in blue pigment in the petals. So, perhaps the solution would be to isolate these genes from the petunia and insert them into the DNA of a rose. In 1994, geneticists did this experiment, but the resulting roses had no delphinidin in their petals and no blue color. Apparently, other genetic instructions interfered and prevented the desired result. Yet, when these same genes were inserted into the DNA of carnations, the resulting flowers did produce delphinidin in their petals, resulting in a bluish hue. So, the method worked for some flowers but not for roses.
Similar experiments involving genes from the pansy were also successful in producing the blue pigment in carnations. So, geneticists isolated the genes from pansies that produce delphinidin and inserted those genes into the DNA of roses. This time, the resulting genetically modified roses did have delphinidin in their petals, but they were not even remotely blue. Why?
Delphinidin produces the bluest colors in flower petals that have a ph factor of 7 or higher – those that are neutral or alkaline. In an acidic environment, the chemical turns purple or red. Rose petals are naturally acidic. So, the delphinidin does not result in the rich blue color that it does in other flowers. Several other color pigments native to the rose also contributed, resulting in a dark red rose. Geneticists began looking at other components in flowers that enhance the blue color.
With additional experimentation, geneticists were able to suppress other pigments, resulting in a rose with delphinidin as the only pigment in its petals. In 2004, the first successful “blue rose” was announced and given the name “applause.” However, the actual color of this rose is lavender at best and is not truly blue. This is due to the acidity of rose petals. As of the writing of this article, a truly blue rose has not yet been engineered.
Apparently, just because we know what a gene does in a particular organism does not imply that we know what that gene will do if inserted into a different organism. Genes interact with each other. And chemicals that do one thing in one environment may do something very different in a different environment. This is the danger of genetic experimentation. We do not know how all chemicals and structures in an organism interact with all other chemicals and structures. The addition, removal, or modification of a single gene may have unexpected and unintended results due to the way proteins interact with each other.
This isn’t to say that we never will understand these things. But it will take a great deal of very careful research to understand the nuances of how genes interact with each other. Genetic engineering in humans is clearly not as simple as locating the “intelligence genes” and inserting them into all humans to produce a smarter population. Any promises to safely enhance humanity through genetic modification are currently unfounded; we can’t even make a blue rose.