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A small step toward a giant leap


The car-friendly guide to fixing human-made greenhouse emissions.

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A small step toward a giant leap

The medical industry is a fantastic proving ground for technology that could help future generations travel beyond the solar system. For example, UK fertility specialists hope to introduce, within the next year or so, technology designed to prevent babies inheriting genetic defects from their mothers. The idea is to replace faulty mitochondrial DNA with DNA from a healthy female donor. Known as “gene-splicing”, the technique reminds me of evening home-movie sessions, when Dad would invariably have to fix a broken film. He had all the right ingredients: The very precise alignment jig; The special glue; And the patience of a motor mechanic who made his living fixing English cars and trucks.

harvest of stars cover

The human gene-splicing story evoked the "lunarians", who are characters in Poul Anderson's "Harvest of Stars" novels. The first lunarians were the genetically-engineered children of moon colonists such as Dagny Beynac, a senior engineer in Fireball Enterprises, the interplanetary operating company founded by grumpy libertarian entrepreneur Anson Guthrie. Beynac loved working on the Moon. She wanted to raise a family. In Poul Anderson's imaginary future, women could not successfully bear children in low gravity. Nor could babies develop properly unless weighed down by the earth's gravity. So Dagny Beynac (and many other moon colonists) produced genetically engineered children that could develop normally in low-gravity conditions.

Gene-splicing is one technique that might allow a real-life Dagny Beynac adapt her offspring to conditions that would kill ordinary humans. But the UK project will modify only the DNA in mitochondria: Organelles that control cellular functions such producing the cell's energy supply and controlling its growth cycle. Mitochondrial DNA is important, but genetic engineers will also need to manipulate nuclear DNA. Nuclear gene-splicing is routinely used on plants, bacteria, and small furry animals.

After medical professionals have sorted gene-splicing for human mitochondria you can bet your fingernails they'll start chopping and channelling human nuclear DNA. And, once they've had enough practice preventing genetic disease, they'll be ready to start producing designer babies.

Poul Anderson imagined a new species adapted for low gravity. It suited his plot to make the lunarians susceptible to radiation, just like ordinary terrans (earthlings). Scientists already know about radiation-hardened creatures. Perhaps future generations will find the relevant genes and splice them into Homo sapiens. Perhaps they could do it without actually creating a new species. The future looks like an interesting time. I'd quite happily come back as a download, like Anson Guthrie, just so as I could see how the future pans out.

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