Scientist shares genetic secrets

Brandon_Araki_Contributing_Photographer-_tedtalk3
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.

Comments