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Will humans really live to be 200 years old? Assuming the answer is yes, what are the technologies or discoveries that will make this possible? And are we headed for a dystopian future in which superhumans control the world?

We don’t pretend we can predict the future here. We’ll leave that to octopuses, who have learnt the hard way that prophets are never welcomed in their hometown. But some recent developments in genetics, and in particular, genetic engineering, point to a future where the definition of humanity will be challenged.

Gene therapy is the delivery of genetic material into a patient’s body to treat disease. Early pioneers focused on diseases that are affected by single genes, such as sickle cell anaemia, cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy. But in the last few years, a powerful new tool called CRISPR has empowered scientists to be able to make massive changes to the DNA of all kinds of organisms, including humans.

There is a really long and complicated explanation for what CRISPR is and does, but the simplest way to describe it is as a cut-and-paste tool for DNA. Essentially we figured out how to use a certain bacteria to edit out parts of the DNA of any organism, or even to add new bits of DNA in.

Obviously this tool offers an unexpected level of power when it comes to curing diseases – scientists are attempting to cure everything from malaria to hearing loss and sickle cell anaemia. CRISPR is even being used for much more mundane tasks, like making mushrooms that don’t go brown as quickly as they do now.

But there are limits to this technology. Recent studies have shown that CRISPR can cause significant unplanned damage to DNA, even raising the risk of cancer. Thankfully, human gene-editing trials are still a long way off and scientists are still searching for even more genetic editing tools to make their work more precise and powerful.

Gene editing is still only taking its first real steps towards changing how we exist as a species and we’re still a long way off from a sci-fi future of designer babies and commonplace genetic editing. But tools like CRISPR have given us the power to begin designing our own genetic future, one free from disease and where we get to live to be two centuries old.

Read more

If you want to learn more about history and future of genes, read The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Get it on iBooks or Kindle.

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