Bending DNA to Our Will? TEDMED Speakers at Work on Rearranging Nature’s Building Blocks

We have arrived in the era where humans can now evolve their DNA. What not so long ago seemed the stuff of sci-fi fantasy is really happening and is changing the trajectory of medicine. Among the scientists rearranging nature’s building blocks are two of our TEDMED 2015 speakers, who will share their experiences, aspirations and concerns about what this phenomenon may mean to the future of humankind.

Scripps Chemistry Professor Floyd Romesberg is focused on breaking through the natural genetic code by using synthetic biology to increase the diversity of life. His lab has made artificial DNA base pairs that have replicated in nature, with the longer-term vision of creating novel protein therapeutics. Because they are made by cells and can be directed to perform particular tasks, Floyd says that this class of drugs has already revolutionized medicine – but his vision goes further. “The functions that a protein can have are currently limited by the natural 20 amino acids from which they are made.” Being able to create new ones will dramatically increase their usefulness.

To describe how this will benefit us, Floyd makes an analogy to the alphabet. “If you read a book that was written with four letters, you’re not going to be able to tell many interesting stories. If you’re given more letters, you can invent new words, you can find new ways to use those words and tell more interesting stories.”

Sam Sternberg's Bench, UC Berkeley
Sam Sternberg’s Lab Bench at Doudna Lab, UC Berkeley

But might some of those stories have terrible endings?

It’s a possibility that Berkeley biochemist Sam Sternberg, whose work has been published in Nature and Science magazines, believes we must examine carefully. As a doctoral researcher in the Doudna Lab at UC Berkeley, Sam was on the team that developed the revolutionary genome-editing tool called CRISPR. Though he is incredibly excited about having a tool that can edit human DNA, he also has anxieties about what this may mean. So now Sam is generating and participating in public discussions on the potential harm that CRISPR could unleash. He recently co-authored an article proposing a moratorium on editing the human germ line until safety and societal implications are broadly discussed.

“Genome engineering technology offers unparalleled potential for modifying human and nonhuman genomes,” Sam says. “In humans, it holds the promise of curing genetic disease … however, with such enormous opportunities come unknown risks to human health and well-being.”

We’re excited to participate in such meaningful conversations! Join us.