One of the biggest scientific research projects in recent years has just unveiled its results. The Encode consortium, consisting of 442 researchers working in 32 institutes around the world, has spent the last five years studying a representative 1% of our genome. The findings may help to revolutionise medicine, but could also provide us with novel ways of tinkering with our minds and bodies.
One of the puzzles the researchers hoped to solve was why we have so much DNA. Many scientists thought that 98% was mostly junk, but the researchers found that it was instead packed full of genetic switches that tell each cell in your body which genes must be switched on or off to make a muscle, skin or nerve cell.
The results are likely to have major implications for understanding common diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and even Alzheimer’s. These were thought to be caused by defective genes (together with environmental influences, such as smoking), but research has failed to find defects that could account for their prevalence. Today, scientists believe that these diseases are caused not by defective genes, but defective switching: a liver cell may be genetically tripped to stop absorbing blood sugar, thereby causing diabetes a lung cell may be tripped into generating mutagens that attack its own DNA, causing cancer.
Few doubt that gene switching will provide the medicine of the future, but no one is sure when that future will be realised. When it comes, it will provide opportunities that go well beyond curing disease. Just as the difference between healthy and sick people may be down to gene switching, it seems likely that many of the differences between one person and another — between us and Usain Bolt, for example — may be due, similarly, to different patterns of gene switching. The kind of gene-switch medicines that will cure diseases may then be turned to therapies that will allow us all to run sub-10 second 100 metres. Physiology, mood, intelligence, libido, anxiety, appetite may all be fair game for the gene-switch therapeutics of the future.
Even the signs and frailties of old age may be kept at bay by a careful manipulation of our gene switches to return them to their youthful state. And what about the differences between us and our closest relatives, which many scientists believe are mostly due to differences in gene switching? Could gene-switch therapy be developed that would allow a chimp to talk?
Planet of the Apes may not be so far away.
Five years of the Encode project have revealed just 1% of the human genes switches, but the pace of genetics is accelerating so fast that it seems likely that we will know most of them within a decade. That will be far too late to be any threat to Usain Bolt’s dominance on the track, but the doping authorities in sport may face significant new challenges in the future. The Guardian