Scientist shares genetic secrets

Photo by Brandon Araki.

Students may someday be able to make full copies of themselves and be born again, according to the first lecturer in Yale’s new TEDx program.

Juan Enriquez, a co-founder of Synthetic Genomics Incorporated and a founding director of Harvard Business School’s Life Sciences Project, spoke to a group of roughly 100 undergraduates in Sterling Memorial Lecture Hall Wednesday afternoon about the potential for technology to manipulate genetic code. Advancements in biotechnology may one day allow humans to engineer themselves, giving them the ability live longer and someday perform feats such as running marathons on the beach at the age of 120, he said.

“The digital revolution will seem tame as we learn how to code life,” Enriquez said.

Some people believe that evolution was intended to create human beings just as they are now, he said, but he and other scientists see the potential for further evolution of humans locked within their genetic code. For Enriquez, life is an imperfect transmission of DNA-based code, he said.

Since gene sequencing technology has seen rapid advances in recent years, Enriquez said developments in genetic capabilities are following quickly. For example, a team of researchers in Shanghai have used a mouse skin cell to create stem cells, allowing for the birth of another identical mouse.

With a better understanding of genetic code, geneticists have already developed new ways to improve human life, Enriquez said. Enriquez described cochlear implants in the human ear that could replace the hearing aid, and he added that this technology could eventually evolve to give humans more exact and focused hearing than those without the implants.

“We may get to the point where you won’t be hired by a symphony orchestra unless you have a cochlear implant,” he said.

Enriquez also discussed his work with Synthetic Genomics Incorporated in creating the first synthetic organism. The venture was headed by renowned geneticist Craig Venter — who worked in early efforts to sequence the human genome — and receives funding from ExxonMobil because of its potential applications. Enriquez described the building of gene sequences like putting together LEGOs.

After finishing his talk, Enriquez was asked about the ethical implications of biotechnological advances. He pointed to the positive effects such research can have on human life, but he also urged students to continue a dialogue about ethics. He said he was encouraged by the fact that Yale’s first TEDx talk focused on this controversial issue, adding that current undergraduates are “going to have choices that no other generation has faced.”

The talk was the first event organized by a new TEDx student organization, co-curated by Miles Grimshaw ’13 and Diana Enriquez ’13, who is the daughter of Wednesday’s speaker. They said they plan to hold a TEDxYale conference with many speakers in February.

Yale’s group is one of many TEDx programs across the world that independently coordinate events with speakers who are experts in their fields to stimulate dialogue.

Five students interviewed said they thought Juan Enriquez presented thought-provoking ideas for the future of human development.

Grier Barnes ’14, who helped to organize the event, said the future of genetic development is promising, though she worries about some of the ethical implications.

“I’m a little nervous, but I think it’s important to be a ‘techno-optimist,’” Barnes said, repeating a term Juan Enriquez used to describe his own positive perspective on the potential of biotechnology.

For Sharif Vakili ’13, most of the concepts Enriquez discussed were not new, but he said he was glad Enriquez was making students aware of what was happening around them.

Juan Enriquez formerly served as chief of staff for Mexico’s Secretary of State.


  • tbriker

    Being Deaf and using American Sign Language to communicate is a beautiful thing. I would not change a thing about myself. I view it as a human trait just like hair color, eye color, or skin color. Do you too? If not, maybe you need to dig deeper to understand why you think that way.

    Who are any of us to decide which human traits are undesirable? Is being Deaf an undesirable trait? Not to me. But if you have the arrogance to persist that it is an undesirable trait because somehow it makes you uncomfortable that people like me exist, then what’s stopping anyone from saying that black people, Jewish people, gays and lesbians, or any other group of human beings are undesirable? Where do you stop? Do you start by creating a master race of blonde haired, blue eyed people? Have you already forgotten the Holocaust which exterminated millions of people in Europe? Did you forget that eugenics laws resulted in the forced sterilization of over 65,000 people here in the United States during the 19th century?

    It is because of people over-hyping the success of cochlear implants that created the inequality which exists today. While all over the world people are attempting to assimilate deaf and hard of hearing children using speaking and listening, audio verbal therapy, cochlear implants, and hearing aids, they are also discouraging parents from using sign language, a visual language which is 100% accessible to a child regardless of how much he or she can hear or speak. Because of the arrogance of people who think they know what’s best and what’s desirable, they have ruined the future of countless innocent deaf and hard of hearing children over 130 years. The same children who do not master the speaking and listening skills which are desired and fall behind in language development and academics end up not going to college, have their dreams of a good career and prosperity dashed, and are treated as inferior, second class citizens. If sign language was simply used with these children instead of focusing on assimilating them, they would have thrived! There would be no more inequality.

    California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell pointed out the following grim statistics in his 2007 State of Education Address, “Closing the Achievement Gap for the Deaf”:

    In English-language arts, (2-12 grade)
    • 92% of our deaf students are not at Grade Level
    • 85% of our hard-of-hearing students are not at Grade Level
    • As measured on the California Standards Test

    O’Connell noted that “… children [who] are born into homes where they have access to the visual language of their families (American Sign Language), and they acquire that language at the same rate that hearing children of hearing parents acquire spoken language. Because they enter school with age-appropriate language skills, they are well prepared to develop literacy skills…”

  • River_Tam

    > Is being Deaf an undesirable trait? Not to me.

    Do you think that deaf people should have the choice whether or not they should gain the ability to hear? I think they should have that choice.

    Reminds me of X-Men 2. /nerd

  • CharlieWalls

    The haploid genome of a human cell is about one yard long. The total protein-encoding length is about one-half inch long. The rest, which for a moment was called ‘junk’, is now more cautiously called ‘non-coding DNA’. Much is only recently being discovered about that large part. Thus voices like this speaker and perhaps much of cancer research are working from a distinctly 20th C. paradigm: expression and control of protein-encoding genes.