6 Mind-Blowing Ways Genetic Engineering Might Save Your Life
Genetic engineering scares a lot of people, partly because we love making sci-fi movies and video games starring walking humanoid horrors that resulted from experiments gone wrong. And, while the idea of something like growing a human heart in a sheep's body just seems wrong somehow, it probably seems less wrong to the person who actually needs a heart transplant.
What we're trying to say is that as weird as it is, genetic engineering may save your life some day thanks to things like ...
Organ Transplants. From Sheep.
A while back, a terrifying headline made the rounds on the Internet: "Scientists Create a Sheep That's 15 Percent Human."
That's still more human than Gilbert Gottfried.
"Holy shit! It's an actual sheeple! What part of it is human? The face? It's the face, isn't it?" But this deserves some explaining, because what they're doing is kind of amazing, and could save a whole bunch of lives.
The idea is to find another source for transplant organs, so that people don't sit on a long waiting list in hopes that some other person will die with a perfectly intact liver or heart (or whatever) before their own fails. The process they're using at the University of Nevada involves injecting human stem cells into a sheep fetus and no, this does not create a monstrous human/sheep hybrid ready to escape into the countryside and terrorize the, uh, grass.
If you were Saint Augustine, you'd be terrified right now.
Instead, the cells circulate through the sheep's system and alter its liver, heart, lungs and whatever else so that they have some human tissue and thus would (hopefully) be able to be transplanted into some sick kid somewhere.
This isn't just at the test tube stage, either. On a farm right now they have a sheep whose liver is 40 percent human. Since the liver's cells regenerate, that means they might be extremely close to being able to do a partial transplant or repair on a human without drawing from the human liver waiting list. Right now, there are 17,000 people waiting for a liver in the U.S., and they will have to wait around a year to get one ... if they survive that long.
"A sheep liver? I'll eat dung beetles if it means drinking again."
And by the way, don't freak out over the idea of having an animal part in your body. Scientists have been using valves from pig hearts to repair humans for years, and this has resulted in not a single Batman villain.
Disease Vaccinations Via Food
Hey, do you like needles? Do you remember being a kid and getting stabbed with a different vaccination every year or so? How about if, instead of having a sharp metal object punched through your skin, you could get that disease fighting-power from the food you eat?
"We're out of oranges. You'll have to bleed."
With the magic of genetic engineering, potatoes have been successfully modified to carry the vaccination for Hepatitis B -- a virus that infects about 350 million people a year, and kills a million of them.
Meanwhile, potatoes are only deadly combined with grease and salt.
In the world of medicine, oral supplements are always preferable to injection -- needles have the nasty habit of spreading infection, especially in developing countries where sterilization practices might not be so great. Getting the vaccines into the food would make distribution a shitload safer, and easier. And the potatoes aren't just theory -- they've grown them and fed them to humans in trials, most of whom showed a boost in their immune response as a result.
Soon you'll be able to pig out and treat your syphilis at the same time.
By the way, if altering foods to make them naturally fight disease sounds crazy, keep in mind that this has already happened. Ever heard of iodized salt? You most likely have it in your kitchen. With only the tiniest of change in flavor, scientists were able to infuse regular table salt with iodine, which prevents things like mental retardation and goiters. So, yeah, if the changes can be done safely, disease-fighting food can change the world.
"It's cocaine, infused with Vitamin B."
But even if humans aren't eating the modified food directly, it can still save lives. The people who started the cloning fad with Dolly the Sheep (the Roslin Institute) have figured out how to make chickens lay eggs with cancer-fighting proteins. You wouldn't eat them to cure your cancer -- they would replace the enormously expensive process pharmaceutical companies use now to grow those proteins (one reason cancer-fighting drugs are so costly). After saving countless lives, those same chickens could then presumably be safely killed, battered and fried.
It's delicious, and it prevents erectile dysfunction.
Ah, chickens, is there anything you can't do?
Insulin Producing Flowers
Diabetes is a dick. Not only does it affect millions of people, but it's expensive as hell. America spends $132,000,000,000 on insulin alone. That's 132 billion dollars for a disease that is still spiraling out of control. And that's just insulin -- other diabetes treatments, supplies and research are costly, as well. Well, guess what? Fuck you, diabetes, because we just found a way to slash the cost of insulin.
Flowers. Genetically engineered freak flowers.
Researchers from the University of Calgary have infused the human gene for insulin inside Canadian safflowers, allowing us to harvest insulin at a fraction of the current cost. And that's a big deal; the vast majority of diabetics simply can't afford insulin every year due to the complex and expensive method we currently use for growing insulin in the lab.
It's usually synthesized from Unicorns.
The key is that safflowers produce shiploads of the stuff -- about 2.2 pounds of insulin per acre. That might not sound like much, but its been determined by botanists that a mere 16,000 acres of safflower could produce enough insulin for the entire planet's diabetic population. Or to put it another way: That would mean you could give everyone insulin by converting 40 average-sized farms to safflower.
Unfortunately, this process isn't entirely without risks, and it's still in the testing phase for human use. There's still the danger of cross-pollination -- a dangerous side effect of genetically modified crops that has the potential to wreak irreparable damage upon local ecosystems. Cross pollination is what happens when wind currents pick up the seed of genetically engineered plants and carry them to unaltered flowers, damaging them and the offspring that grow as a result of the accidental pollination.
Sheep need insulin, right?
Did you think diabetes was bad? Well, OK, yes -- it's an absolute nightmare. But it pales in comparison to one of Earth's most horrific viral scourges this side of Nyan Cat: Malaria.
See mosquitoes, this is why no one invites you to the good parties.
Malaria has been around for ages, and despite our best efforts, it remains a borderline pandemic year after year, affecting over 247 million people on an average annual basis, and killing almost 1 million. So yes, malaria is an awful plague and the fact that millions suffer every year isn't funny in any sense of the word. But maybe one day it will be, when science perfects the malaria-fighting squish-plant it's currently working on.
Like this, but with malaria.
When we first heard the term "mutant fungus," the first words out of our mouthd were "shit" and "aliens." But as it turns out, British researchers at Westminster University are crafting a malaria-killing fungus aimed at the disease's primary mode of transport: mosquitoes.
Tests were surprisingly successful. Startlingly so, actually; mosquitoes exposed to this freak fungus showed dramatic decreases in the malaria virus they normally carried, to the tune of 85 percent. And, as if this wasn't promising or badass enough, they added in a -- get this -- scorpion toxin, which carried that number up (or down) to a solid 97 percent decrease in mosquito-carried malaria.
We don't know what these kids are doing, but thanks to scorpions, fungus and science, they'll be able to do it without dying!
The hope is that this new virus killer will itself go viral, and its properties will be carried throughout the humid tropics where the disease is most prevalent. If all goes according to plan, malaria will still be able to infect mosquitoes, but it will be exponentially more difficult for these mosquitoes to carry the virus to fresh human hosts. Also, this new method is a hell of a lot cheaper than current methods, like shooting mosquitoes out of the air with lasers. Though admittedly with far less entertainment value.
Our days of hiding behind nets are numbered.
Pollution Fighting Trees
All around America there are abandoned hazardous waste sites called Superfund sites (because of the gigantic amount of money it is going to take to clean them up). Abandoned hazardous waste would be no big deal if we could just rope it off and tell everybody to avoid it until the sun goes supernova, but unfortunately the toxic shit being stored there has a way of leaking, and from there it makes its way into the groundwater. Then it kills you.
Or turns you into a superpowered crime fighter.
When it comes time to scientifically engineer a better pollution eater, it makes sense to look at plants. Already, there are some plants that can suck dangerous chemicals out of the groundwater via their roots, and then use enzymes to break down the chemicals. So science is engineering a poplar tree that is way more efficient than nature's version when it comes to sucking the dangerous chemical trichloroethylene out of the ground (that's the most common pollutant at hazardous waste sites, if you're wondering why they picked that particular one).
Maybe they were just unjustifiably huge John Travolta fans.
How much better does the engineered version work? Well, an unaltered tree will soak about three percent of the trichloroethylene from water. The modified trees up that to 91 percent. They can break down the chemical's molecules 100 times faster than nature. Oh, and the plants are also better at removing other common environmental pollutants like chloroform from the soil, and also could eat hazardous gases like benzene from the atmosphere.
You're welcome, humans.
Artificial Life (Sort of)
Apparently, while all these other labs were hard at work modifying things that already existed to fix our problems, one lab said, "Screw it," and just designed their own life. Not real life, mind you -- but seeing as how their synthetic copy of a living Mycoplasma capricolum cell comes complete with man-made DNA and the ability to self-replicate, we'd say it's pretty damn close.
This is the first step on the road to engineered iguanamen slaves.
As of right now, getting this new organism started is about as far as we can go with it, but still it has managed to grow hundredfold in its short five-year lifespan. This incredible stride in the field of genetic engineering is an open door to a whole new world of possibilities. Synthetic biologist Chris Voigt (he's not a robot, despite the title) claimed that with the information gathered here, the subfield of, um ... we'll just name it ourselves here, "playing God," will likely become a primary focus in the field of biological synthetic engineering.
Chris Voigt, seen here proving that "playing God" looks remarkably like sitting on your ass.
Now, keep in mind that anything close to creating a new, human-designed animal is far enough off that Voight himself calls it "science fiction." You have to think smaller. That is, smaller in size, not effect -- already they're using the techniques they learned here to create better vaccines for things like the flu. And when we say "flu," don't just think in terms of the bad cold that makes you miss a week of work, but the disease that kills up to half a million people a year.
So if this is what genetically engineered monstrosities give us, bring that shit on.
For more on awesome science, check out 7 Kickass Sci-Fi Cancer Cures and 5 Scientific Theories That Will Make Your Head Explode.