Overcoming our genetic destiny

We are the products of our genes and the environment. It has never ceased to amaze me that all living things on earth have a single origin and share the same genetic code – what Francis Collins called ‘The Language of Life’. I would argue that deciphering this code has been humanity’s greatest scientific achievement till date. We are privileged to be alive at this point of the journey of our species when we can, not only read (sequence) our code but also edit it.

If we consider the evolution of life on earth, the heroes of this journey are the genes. All living organisms have just been vehicles for the genes and were strictly condemned to their genetic destiny.  Typically, the genes would lose interest in any organism after it crossed its reproductive stage and except for rare quirks, most organisms age quickly after reproduction and live barely enough to get their offspring to self-sufficiency. Undoubtedly, the environment also played a big part in shaping the genes, but looking at our planet’s history, the genes seemed to have wormed its way out of all-natural catastrophes till now.

Getting desired output

Though millions of species evolved over the last billion years and some of them survived for many millions of years, none of them reached a stage where they could challenge the hegemony of the genes.  And considering the life span of our species, our manipulation of the genes has been gradual. After discovering agriculture over 10,000 years ago, our ancestors realised that plants (and subsequently animals) could be bred to develop features (phenotypes) to our benefit.

Though they could not specifically map out the direct genotype to phenotype correlations, they were smart enough to figure out how to get the desired output by trial and error. The benefits are clear in the way our population grew subsequently.

But a lack of the clear understanding the science of inheritance did lead us to many blind alleys (like promoting the ‘Royals’ which still seem to carry a lot of interest to many, and ‘Eugenics’ which fortunately did not last long) and we had to wait for a convergence of many revolutionary technologies to finally enable us to break the genetic code. Once the code was broken it was only a matter of time to make the process cheap and quick, and develop other technologies like CRISPR to start making changes to the genes.

An instrument of change

The biggest strength of our species is our brains and the genes would have never foreseen the additional uses we would put it to.  Developing such a smart organ would never have been the goal of the genes, and it must have been an ‘accident’ that a tool that was meant to enable us to survive and reproduce, later empowered us to search for salvation and now pushes us to aim for the escape from natural death – ‘a point of ‘Singularity’. 

I was however convinced that genomics would be the most significant instrument to change the future of our species and its application in human health, life sciences, agriculture, veterinary sciences, aquaculture, environmental cleanup and so on, seemed limitless. That belief started me on a journey in Genomics based entrepreneurship which has allowed me to actively participate in this revolution.

Understanding the genetic code is now enabling us to figure out the cause of diseases and the best way to cure them. We are able to understand why some people respond to certain drugs why others don’t, and why a few even have very adverse effects.  The whole paradigm of drug discovery is changing from a one size fit all, to targeted therapies and personalised medicines. Still it has been only a few years since we have been able to sequence and analyse the genes in a cost-effective manner. The knowledge we have gained is fascinating, but we have a long way to go, as the genes function in many combinations and through different pathways which makes the research very complex.

Breaking the genetic handcuffs is very important for our species but the focus should be to first understand the science fully and restrict our initial editing efforts to non-human organisms. There may be a few who are in a hurry to get to immortality, but let us make sure that the genes don’t have the last laugh.

(The writer is Founder Chairman and Global CEO, MedGenome Labs)

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Overcoming our genetic destiny

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