Will We Be Able to "Recode" Our DNA?

Could we change the operating code for our bodies?

Could we change the operating code for our bodies?

Our DNA is, in a sense, the operating code for our bodies. We can describe it as sequences of base-4 symbols. If we just had the documentation for the hardware and the operating system, someone who's aced coding school could change the code to fix bugs. We could correct copying errors. People could avoid passing on genetic diseases to their children.

Is this just an analogy running off into fantasy, or could we one day “debug” our DNA? Some people are seriously looking at the prospects. Gill Bejerano, a “computer scientist turned biologist,” has talked about the possibilities and the difficulties.

The first problem is that the human genome contains a lot of data. Reading out the human genome, at the rate of one “word” per second, eight hours a day, would take a century. The second one is that we only understand the function a few small parts of it. Most of it is so-called “junk DNA,” but it may actually serve a purpose. The third is how we'd change genes even if we knew what to change.

Bejerano describes DNA as the “machine language code” and the resulting human as the “output.” By comparing humans who have a genetic condition with those who don't, it's possible to “reverse engineer” the DNA and find out what the coding error is. He talks about “genetic algorithms.”

At the same time, he acknowledges that DNA coding isn't just information theory, but lies at the intersection of biology and information technology. Indeed, the idea of reprogramming people's genes seems to verge on mad science.

One proposed technique for fixing DNA doesn't do much to comfort the paranoid: Retroviruses. Reprogramming DNA is what they do, but the changes they introduce are more often harmful than beneficial. HIV is the best-known example. A specifically engineered retrovirus could introduce a desirable change into an embryo and prevent a defect from developing. It could also introduce unexpected side effects, possibly worse than the condition they aim to stop.

The 1999 death of Jesse Gelsinger provides an illustration. He volunteered for a clinical gene-replacement trial that could help a condition he had, known as OTCD. The treatment made his body poison itself with ammonia, and he died in a few days.

The Distant Future

In time, though, gene reprogramming may become reliable enough to put an end to genetic defects. It could take centuries, but medicine can accomplish things today that were unimaginable a century ago. Several breakthroughs will be needed.

First, science needs a much better understanding of the human genetic code. It has to understand not just what the bases in existing DNA do, but what happens if you change them. This is comparable to reverse engineering an operating system that is gigabytes in size, on a computer where no manuals are available, only harder.

Second, it needs a reliable programming technique. Changing genes in the course of natural human reproduction presents obvious problems. In vitro fertilization may become common, as parents will want children without defects.

Third, it will need to put the science and techniques together into a new form of genetic engineering. What will the “programming” actually look like? Will it be possible to run simulations of the effect of a genetic change? Will designers create retroviruses for sale to make specific fixes? Will there be “higher-level languages” for compiling genetic changes?

Normal computer programming is much simpler. We understand the machines, which are designed so that those who have been to coding bootcamps can program them. We have programming languages and know exactly what they'll do. We can test the code without worrying that a mistake will kill someone.

Depending on the job you get after coding school, the code we write will save lives. We can be satisfied with that for the present, and you can learn the skills to do it by taking our courses. Get in touch with us to learn more.

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