Conversations by Candlelight: Mind-Blowing Dinner Talks at Baca

By SAM MATHAI

I would like to lead off by saying that I am currently writing from Baca, where my molecular biology capstone course is hiding for a week. I wanted to write about gene editing and its potential impacts in sports because honestly, science is more or less my life right now.

Since 2012, there is a good chance you may have heard of something called CRISPR/cas. Pronounced like the drawer in your refrigerator, CRISPR has been hailed as a revolution in science. It is the next big thing, and the promises of it seem endless. You may have heard some things about designer babies or bringing back the wooly mammoth, and though it sounds like bad science fiction, these ideas may be possible with this technology.

CRISPR is an acronym for terminology that is irrelevant here. The gist of it is this: it is a system discovered in bacteria that researchers have co-opted to reliably cut DNA wherever they want. That is the hard part; we know how to add genes once the DNA is broken. So what this technology really entails is an efficient way to edit the genes of any organism, from making corn kernels larger to creating faster, stronger humans (as if the rest of us really needed to feel any worse).

Right now, it’s being used for research and agriculture, and staying out of the human body. It is slowly creeping towards human trials, though. There has been work done in human embryos in China using CRISPR. It was more or less unsuccessful, but the fact remains that this technology will inevitably be used for human genome editing once it is refined. If this doesn’t worry you, it probably should. Not because of some worst-case, Frankenstein’s monster-esque scenario, but because of the enormous power we will soon have to change how we look, perform and, who we are.

This has spurred much debate on how much we should play God. I mean, there is ample opportunity to do so. At dinner I raised this question with my professor, Phoebe Lostroh, and we may have played a little God, or so we intended.

Within minutes, we had started playing the Devil instead, thinking of nefarious ways in which we could use genetic engineering in sports. There is a gene, called myostatin, which creates hyper muscular organisms when deleted. “That could be fun,” Lostroh mused.

Or, we could modify the gene that controls the protein that Lance Armstrong famously used to ‘dope’ his blood. Increasing its production would lead to an advantage that appears completely natural and untraceable. The direction this conversation went lead to ideas I hadn’t thought of before, and I expressed my awe at the fiendish ways we were finding to use science to cheat in sports. “Yeah… and I haven’t even been drinking,” Lostroh replied, her head nodding in encouragement as my classmates added their own twisted ideas.

On a darker note, Lostroh raised the idea of forced genetic modifications. There have been scandals where women are suspected of being men. What if, in that situation, an athlete had an XY chromosome, but developed as a female (which is entirely possible, for some legitimate biological reasons?) What if, to compete, someone mandated that their genome had to be edited to XX?

Things had taken a turn down a treacherous road, and soon we were discussing an apocalyptic future in which gladiators had returned, genetically modified to fight with superhuman strength. That particular scenario does seem unlikely, but Lostroh agreed that considerations for genetically modified humans in sports were likely inevitable, given the pace of research.

Of course, these are hilariously minor applications next to things like curing genetic diseases or bringing back species that we have driven to extinction, but this isn’t a science column, so I’ll leave you all with that for now.

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