Thursday, March 8, 2018

Editing the DNA Code

The process of editing is a high level human skill. With respect to written works from high school essays to newspaper articles to drama texts, skillful editors are highly valued. When we apply editing to the human genome and making changes in human DNA we enter sacred ground. Genomic editing has made huge and sometimes frightening strides. Sydney Brenner, Nobel Prize winning laureate in Medicine states, “Progress in science depends on new technologies, new discoveries, and new ideas, probably in that order.” Never has Brenner’s statement been more appropriate than today. In the past few years genome editing has received a huge jolt with the discovery of CRISPR/cas9 technology.        

Some readers may have experienced editing their own essays or other written works. Others may have edited the writings of others. Teachers of language and writing assume heavy responsibilities in editing their students’ written work. Editing skills utilize correcting, condensing, altering, modifying, deleting, adding, and emending. When the term edit is used in connection with activities other than writing, interesting analogies may be drawn. DNA is truly a language, a coded system of communication leading to the production of proteins, life’s building blocks. 

DNA and its code provides the “key” to earth life. We have stated that without the code there would be no known formula for the secret of life. In the wisdom of God, He has enabled human scientists to discover the code responsible for life’s existence. The DNA code, in the lifetimes of people alive today, has been deciphered and its functions identified. Human intelligence has unlocked physical secrets of the code and how it functions. Knowledge of the code has enabled humanity to identify intelligence which undergirds the code. It is a divine Intelligence integrating the physical universe and life itself.

Prior to the 1950s, discoveries concerning knowledge of DNA were sparse but they laid the groundwork for knowledge gained in the ensuing seven decades. We point to the outstanding discoveries of the DNA helix structure in the 1950s. The age to follow may be termed the “golden age” of genetic discovery. Young people living in the 1950s (1946-1964) were considered “Baby Boomers.” They followed members of the “Silent Generation,” born between 1925 and 1945. I humbly count myself as a member of the “Silent Generation” without fully understanding why we were considerered “silent.” The “Baby Boomer” generation lived when discoveries concerning the “miracle molecule” of life, DNA, were beginning in full force. In the 1960s and 1970s the secrets of the DNA code were revealed by slow manual sequencing methods. Only around the turn of the millennium did we discover rapid automated procedures. We now possess the sequence of the complete human genome. In the human genome there are 3.2 billion nucleotide base pairs.

Embedded in our genome is information for about 20,000 proteins, inferred from the protein coding function of DNA. There are about 200 different cell types supporting many different tissues in the human body, each composed of many different protein building blocks and protein substances enabling overall bodily function. Advanced students of medicine have developed expertise in four major tissue types composed of these proteins, 78 body organs including five major body organs, and 11 major integrated body systems.

Because the protein building blocks of the body and the DNA which codes for the production of those proteins is so vital to human life (and all life) on this planet, any new technology supplemented by innovative ideas from the human mind are breakthroughs we should seriously consider. Several years ago news broke about the CRISPR/cas9 technology. I will forego any detailed explanation and ignore six pages of my written notes to provide for the simplest explanation I could muster. Perhaps readers could research detailed information on their own.

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. These are snippets of DNA which were originally found in bacteria and used as their protection from harmful viruses. The transfer of this knowledge to human disease applications must be considered one of Sydney Brenner’s “new ideas” preceded by advances in new technology and new discoveries. The rapid progress in this field can only be described as bewildering. Its application permits the cell’s genome to be cut, removed, deleted, repaired, or replaced. We realize the process is a true example of editing. Writers describe the technology with the imagery of a “molecular scissors.”

The new technology is mainly applicable for treatment of genetic diseases. Most diseases are relatively rare, but they can be devastating. Diseases such as cancer appear to have a genetic component and run in families. Cancer is not a rare genetic disease. For this reason, most CRISPR research, discovery, and treatment currently relates to cancer treatments. In future years much effort will be devoted to some of the other genetic maladies. There are thousands of lesser known and rare genetic diseases.

In future posts we plan to discuss the moral consequences of tampering with the DNA code initiated by the Divine Creator. Should humans not only investigate God’s divine actions in creation of life, but also go further to actively dissect and utilize the genetic secrets of life’s existence designed by Him? These are theological questions of great significance as our knowledge base advances.