“There are no shortcuts in evolution,” famed Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once said. He might have reconsidered those words if he could have foreseen the coming revolution in biotechnology, including the ability to alter genes and manipulate stem cells. These breakthroughs could bring on an age of directed reproduction and evolution in which humans will bypass the incremental process of natural selection and set off on a high-speed genetic course of their own. Here are some of the latest and greatest advances.
Embryos From the Palm of Your Hand
In as little as five years, scientists may be able to create sperm and egg cells from any cell in the body, enabling infertile couples, gay couples, or sterile people to reproduce. The technique could also enable one person to provide both sperm and egg for an offspring—an act of “ultimate incest,” according to a report from the Hinxton Group, an international consortium of scientists and bioethicists whose members include such heavyweights as Ruth Faden, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, and Peter J. Donovan, a professor of biochemistry at the University of California at Irvine.
The Hinxton Group’s prediction comes in the wake of recent news that scientists at the University of Wisconsin and Kyoto University in Japan have transformed adult human skin cells into pluripotent stem cells, the powerhouse cells that can self-replicate (perhaps indefinitely) and develop into almost any kind of cell in the body. In evolutionary terms, the ability to change one type of cell into others—including a sperm or egg cell, or even an embryo—means that humans can now wrest control of reproduction away from nature, notes Robert Lanza, a scientist at Advanced Cell Technology in Massachusetts. “With this breakthrough we now have a working technology whereby anyone can pass on their genes to a child by using just a few skin cells,” he says.
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Graham Fleming sits down at an L-shaped lab bench, occupying a footprint about the size of two parking spaces. Alongside him, a couple of off-the-shelf lasers spit out pulses of light just millionths of a billionth of a second long. After snaking through a jagged path of mirrors and lenses, these minuscule flashes disappear into a smoky black box containing proteins from green sulfur bacteria, which ordinarily obtain their energy and nourishment from the sun. Inside the black box, optics manufactured to billionths-of-a-meter precision detect something extraordinary: Within the bacterial proteins, dancing electrons make seemingly impossible leaps and appear to inhabit multiple places at once.
Peering deep into these proteins, Fleming and his colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley and at Washington University in St. Louis have discovered the driving engine of a key step in photosynthesis, the process by which plants and some microorganisms convert water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight into oxygen and carbohydrates. More efficient by far in its ability to convert energy than any operation devised by man, this cascade helps drive almost all life on earth. Remarkably, photosynthesis appears to derive its ferocious efficiency not from the familiar physical laws that govern the visible world but from the seemingly exotic rules of quantum mechanics, the physics of the subatomic world. Somehow, in every green plant or photosynthetic bacterium, the two disparate realms of physics not only meet but mesh harmoniously. Welcome to the strange new world of quantum biology.
On the face of things, quantum mechanics and the biological sciences do not mix. Biology focuses on larger-scale processes, from molecular interactions between proteins and DNA up to the behavior of organisms as a whole; quantum mechanics describes the often-strange nature of electrons, protons, muons, and quarks—the smallest of the small. Many events in biology are considered straightforward, with one reaction begetting another in a linear, predictable way. By contrast, quantum mechanics is fuzzy because when the world is observed at the subatomic scale, it is apparent that particles are also waves: A dancing electron is both a tangible nugget and an oscillation of energy. (Larger objects also exist in particle and wave form, but the effect is not noticeable in the macroscopic world.)
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Image courtesy of Dylan Burnette/Olympus Bioscapes Imaging Competition.