Advances in genetic research and technologies will continue at not only a faster pace than twenty years ago, but exponentially so. The costs of reading and writing genomes decreased by 1.5-fold per year in the 1980s and 10-fold per year in the past 6 years, with no evidence of limits to this exponential shift over the next few years. When we see such accelerations, we have to be especially cautious that our humanity keeps pace with our technology.
Safety and security:
As genome engineering becomes a mature engineering field, it begins to follow the path of (and possibly outdo) other engineering disciplines in developing safety and security features. Only as transportation technology matured did we see seat belts, airbags, licenses and radar speed-monitors. The analogs for genetic engineering are organisms which can't exchange functional genetic material with the environment, plus licensing and computer surveillance of all synthetic genomics components-from chemicals and machines to genes and genomes. Gene therapy is transitioning from the train wreck of random viral delivery (with immune and cancer consequences) to precise homologous recombination. For example, Phase 1 clinical trials on Zn finger knockouts of both copies of the HIV receptor gene (CCR5) in one's own blood cells presents a much-needed AIDS cure, with encouraging outcomes so far. Even more profound is the idea that a very tiny proportion of the population has this protective genetic state naturally.
The ability to change our adult genomes safely takes pressure off the manipulation of the germline and encourages us to embrace and manage our diversity, rather than overly medicalize, suppress or eliminate diversity. Tiny effect sizes and "missing heritability" doesn't limit us if we continue to find-or invent-rare, highly protective alleles, not just for viral resistance (above), but for less breakable bones (e.g. rare LRP5 alleles), for radically lower LDL-cholesterol (via rare PCSK9 alleles), for slow aging, and especially for neural diversity (ADHD, dyslexia, OCD, bipolar, narcolepsy). The push of big pharma and genome-wide association studies to lump us together into giant cohorts is giving way to the prospect that each of us is an N=1 cohort. Hence serious efforts arise to develop cost-effective tools that enable us to handle N=1. We increasingly embrace the interrelations among genomes, environments, traits and cohorts. This emphatically includes education as part of our environment and cohort, and epigenomes bridging all of these. The super-exponential cost drop of genetic technologies not only impacts our ability to measure (and alter) our human genomes, but also our environment -- microbes, allergens, foods, immune function, therapies, and transplants.
Research subjects and consumers increasingly demand access to their data. How and why would we paternalistically protect them from such data? Will we only allow the wealthy to access their own data, or will we swiftly implement education (e.g. PGEd.org)? Once we can freely access such data, will our personal genomes be like our faces and voices, which we expose? Faces and voices reveal large parts of our culture, ancestry, health, age, emotions, and education. These are often the basis of life-altering decisions by others about us. Nevertheless, we tend to share them. For research, several groups have noted the disingenuous nature of implying anonymity to research subjects (even in "controlled-access" or "authorized-access" databases). Such closed-access and proprietary datasets also restrict collaborations, international grassroots participation and out-of-the-box explorations. Arguments that people will not volunteer without misleading assurances are becoming far less convincing as we watch the volunteer lists for fully open-access human research projects rapidly grow.
George Church, PhD, is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, Director of the Center for Computational Genetics, and founder of the Personal Genome Project.