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by Rory Alyn
The fact that we have more than whiskey and opium to get us through an amputation nowadays is pretty freaking incredible. Now, medical science has things like basic sanitation and vaccines and ... sci-fi procedures that will blow your damn mind.
Gene Editing Is An Actual Thing
If you haven’t heard of CRISPR-Cas9 yet, there’s a solid chance you’re living under some kind of geological formation that prevents you from receiving news in a timely manner. There has been a fair amount of media coverage on the subject as of late, and unless you’re a DNA geek, it can be a rather confusing concept to wrap your mind around.
To simplify it as best we can, gene editing is the technology, and CRISPR-Cas9 is a discovery in the genome that allows us to make direct edits to strands of DNA. And contrary to what you may be thinking, it has nothing to do with a Gattaca-like future or refrigerated designer babies. Probably.
It began as a way to combat viruses. Basically, the CRISPR bacteria takes a snapshot of your DNA when a virus is present, then when it sees that same virus in the future, it unleashes a “300 Spartans” worth of defensive RNA that relay messages to your body to save the day. It’s a communicative camera combat combo that rescues you from awfulness.
Quick, someone Photoshop little spears onto this!
But how scientists are now using this discovery is rather brilliant -- by reprogramming CRISPR bacteria, they can target specific strands of DNA that they want deleted or changed. Those modified bacteria can now treat whatever they’ve been programmed to fix, effectively removing it from a person’s DNA. We’re talking autism symptoms, autoimmune diseases, HIV, and even certain forms of cancer. Hell, it’s being tested in China right now for that whole cancer thing, and is slated to start tackling sickle cell disease in Europe sometime this year.
With the developments coming out in rapid fire, there’s no doubt that CRISPR technology will shape the future of humanity, and even what human beings are in the future. In fact, we’re all on the cusp of using this to ensure our babies are born happier and healthier than ever. We even have the technology to bring a modified embryo to term right now.
As it stands, CRISPR technology promises to vastly outstrip our imagination. Suddenly, Jurassic Park is starting to seem like a cautionary tale more than a movie about chicken-frog-dinos trying unsuccessfully to eat Jeff Goldblum.
Human-Animal Hybrids Aren’t Just Mythological Demigods
The idea of a cross between a human and an animal probably takes you back to visions of mythological creatures like a centaur or Dave Bautista. Basically a half creature, half glistening, muscled being of spectacular nature, playing a flute or shooting a bow or something. But science has given us a far more practical reality on this concept:
It’s basically a horrifying pig-demon with far too many organs chilling out in its flesh tomb.
OK, not really. But human-swine embryos have actually been created in a lab, albeit not yet brought to term. One in particular was implanted into a female pig and allowed to gestate for several weeks before being removed and examined. The human cells within had divided and multiplied just like the pig cells, though not at the same rate. What this means for a fully gestated human-pig hybrid embryo is unclear, though presumably the end result is madness.
The scientific term for this process is “Eww, icky gross.”
Just kidding. What scientists are really interested in is the possibility of growing human organs inside of pigs for transplant purposes. You may already know that human and pig organs are remarkably similar. In fact, pig heart valves have been harvested and successfully transplanted into human hosts. So looking at this as a possibility to address the shortage in organs available to humans is kind of incredible.
And while we’re not quite there yet, human DNA and pig DNA have already been combined to create a viable embryo, which sounds both promising and like the start of a gritty sci-fi movie in which human-pig armies take over the planet. Holy crap, we’re on the way to seeing a real life Rocksteady and Bebop.
Or we would be, if it weren’t for a lack of funding. As it turns out, there isn’t much public favor to be found in funding what’s largely seen as a desecration of the human species.
We Can Pretty Much Grow Human Brains In Labs
Artificial tissue growth in a laboratory environment is a fairly new technology that some people are a little squeamish about. Specifically, when you’re doing things like using stem cells to create “minibrains,” like they have at the University of Pennsylvania. And while they’re not developed enough to do things like think or feel, the horrifying thought that it’s actually happening and that they possibly could someday is enough to make people freak the hell out.
Perhaps it’s a matter of poor branding, which is probably why some scientists have preferred to give them a much more scientific term: cerebral organoids. Though now that we think about it, we’re not sure that’s better, because it kind of paints a picture of weird, bipedal brain-like creatures that float through space and harvest knowledge from every intelligent species via tentacle suction before attempting to explode the entire universe.
And it would definitely look like this … except WAY bigger.
In reality, the technology promises to assist in future brain surgeries, allowing fresh tissue to be implanted where brain tissue has been irreparably damaged by injury, stroke, disease, or tumor growth. Furthermore, this lab-grown monstrosity gives scientists the chance to study brains without having to harvest one from a cadaver. This opens up the possibility for non-invasive research into Alzheimer’s, sclerosis, and other neurological disorders that would usually require a freshly dead brain.
Of course, growing a human brain in a lab, even in part, raises all kinds of ethical questions. What is consciousness? What is pain? Does a disembodied brain count as a person? Would it even have consciousness or experience pain without a body attached? Do we just give it a robot body and see where things go?
Oh god, we might have just inadvertently invented the end of days with our stupid speculations.
Human Neural Enhancement, Limitless Style
Neural enhancement is, simply, a field of science aimed at increasing human cognitive performance. It’s basically using drugs and surgical methods originally designed to treat disabilities to better the brain function of ordinary individuals, enhancing their abilities beyond that of the average person. Sort of like steroids for the brain, but without the side effects of rage and shrunken testicles.
Right now, that Tesla guy is backing research into a brain-computer interface called Neuralink, branching off of currently existing brain scanning technology. It would likely be implemented on a military level before seeing commercial use, but it’s not hard to see how a technological brain link could be used in one’s everyday life, from cars to computer input, even health monitoring -- the possibilities are rather endless. And as this field grows, we see things like cognitive training video games emerging. Microsoft itself is in development of a brain-responsive computing system. There are even virtual reality systems being created to help patients with PTSD.
We’re waiting on the one that lets us levitate things with our minds.
Silicon Valley employees have been known for taking “brain enhancement” drugs for years. Nootropics, or cognitive enhancing drugs, are practically written into everyone’s daily diets. They could be as simple as caffeine found in coffee, L-Theanine found in black tea, or even nicotine. Other popular supplements like Ginkgo Biloba, Ginseng root, Creatine, and other drugs sold as over the counter supplements are the hallmark of techie productive activity.
It does get a bit more complicated, though. Some actual drugs and surgical techniques are now being considered as legitimate tools to boost normal human function. Why should things like ADHD medication or deep brain stimulation be reserved for the people who actually need them? Can’t we normal-functioning people reap the rewards of popping a pill or undergoing virtual brain surgery to increase our capabilities?
Look, we don’t know. We cook pork chops inside of cars, for piss sake. But if there’s a pill or a brain implant out there that will help us do that more efficiently, we’re all over it.
We Can Grow A Fetus In An Artificial Womb
In 2017, scientists brought a fetal lamb to term in an artificial womb called a Biobag. While not the most motherly of terms, the Biobag contains all of the essential parts of a womb: an enclosure to protect it from the outside world, much like a uterus; a solution of electrolytes similar to amniotic fluid that engulfs the lamb; and a means of circulating blood via an umbilical artery interface.
OMG, MUST PET IT!
The fact is, pregnancy is risky for all parties involved, and most infant deaths are due to premature birth. While breakthroughs in neonatal care have increased viability to 22 - 23 weeks of gestation, the (fairly low) survival rate is also coupled with lifelong lung disorders and complications related to organ immaturity. Scientists are particularly interested in how this technology might be used to help premature infants continue to grow in a sterile, lab-controlled environment.
While this topic triggers a fairly massive debate about fetal ethics and choice, this technology could absolutely be utilized by humans in the future. From monitoring fetuses with congenital disorders to allowing premature infants more time to develop, it’s only going to become more refined. Scientists have been working to create an artificial womb for decades, something that’s better than the incubators we have now, and this breakthrough in lambs brings us one step closer to being able to replicate this very thing for people. Truly, this represents a tantalizing dream: to give a premature child every opportunity at the best chance of survival.
Whoa. Science is amazing ... when it doesn’t result in freakish human-pig people, we guess.
Like this article? Check out “Where’s All The Cool Sci-Fi Stuff We Were Promised As Kids? Well, Actually ...” and “6 Real Science Experiments That Sound Like Horror Movies”.