Futurism Interviews Dr. Steve Gullans on The Future of Human Evolution
Step into any library and you will quickly realize that there is more information in this world than you could ever read in your lifetime. To the general public and to prospective students, the sheer volume and complexity of information can be intimidating, to say the least.
Fortunately, from time to time, accomplished scientists with a high level perspective are able to relate abstract ideas and findings to everyday people. Futurism Life Sciences Correspondent Mike Struharik had the good fortune of meeting with Dr. Steve Gullans, Co-Founder of Excel Venture Management, to discuss Evolving Ourselves, his new book he co-wrote with colleague Juan Enriquez.
An accomplished geneticist who has published more than 130 scientific papers and has held a faculty position at Harvard Medical School for nearly 20 years, Dr. Gullans is also active in founding and directing companies to bring to fruition the discoveries that will shape and transform humanity.
Dr. Gullans gave us an hour of his time to talk about writing a book on modern science that is relatable to the general public, and why it is critical for our generation to be optimistic, brave, and informed.
You can find an edited transcript below, with an active index that allows you to jump to relevant topics throughout the discussion. The full interview transcript can be found here.
- Wiping out Harmful Recessive Alleles
- The Diversity of Choice
- How We Can Best Direct our Ecological Influence
- Steve’s Perspective on Cambrian Genomics
- Discrimination Based on Genetic Screenings
- 23andMe Patenting Processes Behind Genetic Selection
- How Wealth will Influence Access
- Reviewing Optogenetics: Can it be used for Benevolent Purposes?
- Stifling Innovation to Ensure Responsible Use
- The Future Convergence Between Genetic and Binary Code
- Why we Should be Optimistic About the Future
- Scientists that Deserve More Recognition
- How Can We Get Involved?
MS: We’ll begin by talking about how the book was curated. Can you give us a bit of background about how it all came together?
SG: Sure, Juan and I have known each other for about a dozen years, we were both faculty at Harvard. He was in the business school and created the life sciences program there, and I was in genomics and DNA but he was really at the interface where business intersects with DNA, and I was in a place where DNA intersects with human health and things like that. We both left Harvard to pursue entrepreneurial careers and eventually started a venture fund together, where we decided that the best way to change the world for the better was to bring likeminded pioneers and entrepreneurs together who see the future of science, and find near term opportunities with appropriate funding to make new antibiotics et cetera and all kinds of things to help the world.
MS: I know that there are a lot of genetic diseases that we are very close to being able to treat which are caused by recessive alleles. For example, sickle cell anemia is actually an adaptation to promote resistance to malaria. If a person has one recessive allele they will be resistant to malaria, but if both alleles are recessive then they will have a debilitating illness. So we want to be able to wipe out harmful recessive alleles. Is there a way to do this while retaining the traits that contribute to human diversity?
SG: Well, the smaller percentage of people have blue eyes and that is an interesting trait in and of itself, but in terms of ways to weed out harmful traits- there will be ways, technically. Now will there be an interest in doing so? Imagine we go forward and you say “What’s the choice” on sickle cell anemia, or multiple sclerosis, or a variety of other things that may have a genetic basis to them. Well it seems pretty obvious, you want your kids to have a better life. Well how about when we get to traits like beauty or longevity? Just living a longer, younger life. Is that something that we should mandate as a society, if we had the choice? Or is that something that should be a personal choice?
MS: So this might create some kind of a divergence between people who want to accept the new technology and people who don’t.
SG: And you talked about diversity- it may be diversity of choice that we have to look at, and one of the things that I worry about is the lack of diversity, to the extent that we become a monoculture, because everybody says “you know, I wish I had blue eyes, I wish I did run marathons, I wish I did…” a variety of things that can be influenced by your genetics or by any form of foods or supplements or any things that are out there. We have a tendency today to try to become more alike and not less alike.
MS: Let’s move on to another topic in terms of our environment and ecology. Humans are driving rapid evolution by decimating existing species, but also by cultivating new ones. It seems pretty haphazard at present. How do you think we can best direct our ecological influence, if we can at all?
SG: “Direct” is an interesting term. The book is about unnatural selection which is really human driven changes to ourselves and the planet that are altering the variety and the types of animals and plants and bacteria that exist around us. In terms of deliberate, we tend to think very locally now, in terms of what we are doing as beneficial for ourselves. We don’t think globally, and we don’t act globally. Global warming, for example, is a harmful thing, and we are unable to come to action on that right now. So in a local context we do alter the plants and animals around us simply by creating cities, or by treating animals with antibiotics. We have basically altered all of the species out there with this gross overuse of antibiotics.
MS: There is a startup that we’ve learned about called Cambrian Genomics, and they are aiming to take species cultivation to the next level, where people can build their own species. In doing so, are there boundaries that we should be carefully observing?
SG: By chance, I had lunch last week with Austin Heinz, who is the CEO of Cambrian Genomics, and Austin is a very engaging and high energy individual who has developed some very powerful technology of synthesizing DNA at scale and length with high fidelity- which is really important. You don’t want to be introducing changes that you don’t understand. So our ability to manufacture DNA, and this comes back to the ways in which we do things, is actually progressing very quickly. There are very few groups in the world that are thinking on a genomic scale, aside from in terms of what we do. It’s really going to begin in bacteria. We see George Church and Craig Venter and some others talking about algae, eukaryotic cells, even mammoths from George, or Neanderthals. In general, you have to deal with two things. Assuming it works, you first have to deal with safety, and then the ethical/moral dilemmas.
MS: Let’s talk more about the ethics, starting with how it will apply to human medicine. With the advent of genetic screening, we can begin to assess the likelihood of disease in individual people. This gives us a lot of knowledge and power, but could this result in any kind of discrimination? For example, can people be rejected from career paths or health insurance plans because of their likelihood to develop an illness?
SG: From a legal perspective, the US legislature has already dealt with this. With regard to insurance companies, health providers, et cetera, they cannot discriminate based on DNA testing, which is an interesting situation because actually consumers can get their own tests and figure out what their chances of dying early are. With regard to how fast it’s going and what the rules of engagement are, gene therapy, which is the first generation of DNA alterations in humans aside from transplanting bone marrow – which is introducing someone else’s DNA into your body- but in the case of actually altering your genetic code, there have been 2,000 human gene trials performed in the world, each with say 10-50 people or more. So thousands and thousands of people have been getting genetically engineered material. We have one approved drug, Glybera, approved only in Europe today. It works very well, but that is actually going to open the gateway, so all the promise of genetics is now just beginning to be seen and that’s one of the very first harbingers of it.
MS: OK. So, in talking about personalized genetics, there is a very well-known company called 23 and Me, and they have filed a patent for gamete donor selection based on genetic calculations. They have also announced that they are going to be developing their own drugs. Do you think that a single company should be allowed to patent processes behind genetic selection?
SG: I’ve gotten the 23 and Me test, in fact it is off in a package my relatives received in the mail from me because I’m compiling a genetic analysis and today there were 2,000 individuals sequenced in Iceland, with the idea of having your DNA analyzed for understanding your genealogy, which is very straightforward. It’s interesting, it’s curious, and it’s actually united a number of people who didn’t know they were related with each other, including people who were adopted. With regard to managing diseases and other traits, that is an individual event. I know 23 and Me is very cautious about what they release. The FDA has come in to mandate certain regulatory behavior, and they are living by those rules. I think the regulatory and ethical agencies of this country, we are talking about the US in this case, the FDA or even the moral and ethical guidelines of the churches, are going to steer us in the right direction. I have very little concern about this in the long term, and in the short term we are fumbling our way through it like we did in the early days of the internet.
MS: Do you think money is going to play a big role in determining who has access to the newer developments in medicine?
SG: It always has in new technologies. I mean, just take a look at the mobile phone, the cell phone. The first cell phones were owned by bankers and Wall Street whizzes and those were the only people who could afford them. But today, people all over the world, even in the poorest countries of the world, have a cell phone. So truly revolutionary technologies that can scale do find a way to reach the important elements of society and many, many uses. In the case of life science technologies, these are methods that can generally be done- not all of them, but generally- can be done in your kitchen with some simple utensils. It’s not like making a nuclear reactor or an integrated chip. It’s something that’s very simple and so access to these technological recipes is already underway.
MS: Let’s talk about some of these new technologies and the potential to augment human brains. Optogenetics is pretty new, not too many people know about it and I think this book might be one of the first popular culture publications to really give a detailed overview of a game-changing technology.
So optogenetics is a method where a protein is manufactured inside of neurons that can take light and transform it into electricity. When you shine light into brain tissue it can produce a signal that conducts down a neuron, and this can be used to control brain activity using light. They’ve been showing that it can be used to alter thoughts and memories and it could be used therapeutically for diseases like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But, it could also be used for less benevolent purposes. What are the best and worst case scenarios?
SG: Brain science is the last frontier in terms of truly understanding and having methods that can work. The science that is going on in lower species including worms and now has migrated to mammals is showing that we can actually use lasers to not only control the brain but also to read thoughts of the brain. Getting information at single cell levels has been the biggest problem for forever in trying to understand how the brain is wired and what it does, and this ability to do that is going to finally give us the capability of interfacing computer chips and Silicon Valley technologies with the brain. How it’s going to be used remains to be seen, because we frankly haven’t pushed the technology to an optimal position to be used in humans at the moment.
MS: So you think it’s more likely that it will be deployed toward medicine before we would have anybody trying to upload advertisements into our brain?
SG: Yeah, I mean, if I want to extrapolate- certainly we like to think we are building smart robots that can go into dangerous places and find all sorts of things, but there’s nothing smarter than a small animal crawling in to find accident victims, and if we actually had a way to read the thoughts of the animal as it was sniffing for a human in a bomb explosion area it would be a much easier way to actually develop a system like that.
MS: Do you think that advancements in optogenetics or other cutting edge technologies like CRISPR should be deliberately stifled to assure responsible use? How could these advances be monitored or regulated?
SG: Well, CRISPR is a new area. The more general term is gene editing- to go in and just like you would edit a document using your word processor to remove a word globally or to change a word from one word to another. This is a technology that came out of bacteria from yogurt, reengineered to be applied to any cell- plant, human, anything- to go in and modify that cystic fibrosis gene or whatever you’d like to be useful. It’s not used in animals right now and just last week leading scientists in the field called for a moratorium on human use of this, particularly in germ cell- i.e., sperm and eggs, or next generation testing, while we get our ethical and moral rules in place. That will be temporary because it appears to be extremely safe, and it’s just going to be time before we set the boundaries- no different than in vitro fertilization technologies today.
Curing diseases with these new technologies is always the first place and there is a reason why orphan disease is a favorite of Wall Street, because everyone wants a child to survive and have a healthy future. It is a slippery slope when you get methods that are easy to implement so that they could be used outside the purview of, say, the American regulatory agencies in other countries by people who can afford it, selecting for altering traits that may be viewed as not health related. Is living longer a beneficial trait, and should we encourage that? Well some people say yes, and some people say no. Is having blue eyes something you should be altering genes for?
MS: So ultimately, DNA and genetics is based on a code. In genetics there are four components to that code (adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine) but in computers there is just binary (1’s and 0’s) - it’s still a code and there is a relationship between binary and genetic code. In the book you mention something very interesting, that George Church encoded a digital file of a book onto DNA, and he replicated the molecule and presented 20,000,000 copies of the book that were all contained in a single drop of liquid. Do you foresee an eventual convergence between genetic code and binary? Is this going to become ordinary within our lifetime?
SG: So George Church is a leading geneticist in the world, he’s a professor at Harvard, he’s a friend, and he finds the time to not only do cutting edge research but also to write a book. The idea of using DNA as a coding instrument works pretty well because we’ve sequenced a species of horse that was 700,000 years old, so the digital files we keep now- the floppy disk that we had just a generation ago- can no longer be read because many of them have deteriorated. So actually, storing information in DNA is a pretty reliable way to do things. Its one of the reasons life has been so resilient. But you still need ways to read it and write it and copy it and edit it. Now, the convergence of the digital and the life code is already underway. Juan and I believe that the life code will be the driver of the 21st century in many applications, and the idea of the singularity as Ray Kurzweil has pointed out where machines become smarter than humans, I think, is a sliding landscape. He has predicted about 2040, I think, for that to occur. But as humans begin to adapt and evolve to smarter machines it’s going to be a coevolutionary process.
As Roy Amara has said, we tend to overestimate a new technology in the short term and underestimate it in the long term. In the case of the Human Genome Project we grossly overestimated, in the short term, what it was going to do for us. Now we are tending to underestimate it, very clearly. When you see the first gene therapy coming out, the control of the stem cells, CRISPR with gene editing, all of these things- this is 15 years post the first draft of the human genome- have just shown up on the scene. We are now taking control of our ability to read, write, and copy the gene code in ways that are going to absolutely transform the world around us in ways that the 20th century saw computers take hold.
MS: So from your perspective, being on the frontier, it sounds like you’re pretty optimistic about things.
SG: I’m very optimistic. I mean, every single generation has seen a technology that has given it Malthusian predictions. We were going to run out of food in the mid-1800s according to the futurists there and we were going to run out of oil in the 1920s according to the futurists there. We have robots taking over or computers taking over the planet… in general, we adapt. What happens is that the existing generation is slow to adapt, but the future generations are very comfortable with these things, and to date we’ve found our way, in general, through the moral/cultural morass that you can get tied up with in the dystopian society. If you go back and look at books and movies et cetera from the past they generally predict things to be far worse than they turn out.
MS: Now, a lot of today’s top scientists are highlighted in your book, but are there any who maybe deserve a little more publicity or more attention?
SG: The thing that I would like to highlight is the transformative changes that you don’t see in the near term. It’s pretty obvious when somebody sequences the human genome that that’s transformative. But as Dean Kamen mentioned recently- when the first patent for the transistor was written, or any fundamental technology that changes the world, the applications that are envisioned in that first patent had nothing to do with what actually comes to fruition. When Shockley and the team at Bell Labs put together the first transistor, they didn’t know about the internet, or satellites, or any of that, but that’s all you think about today. And if you think about the technologies and the leaders in this field that we talk about- Craig Venter, or Ed Boyden for example, I think these are transformative technologies, but the applications of technologies 20-30 years from now may not be these things. I would say DNA sequencing is fundamental to this field, the people who are leading the synthetic bio movement are going to transform the way things are done in terms of bacterial engineering for manufacturing, and they are not scientists who are celebrated. The transformative biology of today has become multidisciplined. As a result, for example, optogenetics needs people who can do molecular biology and also computer processing to read the laser signals that are coming out of the brain. So I don’t have anybody specific to mention, but what I will say is that the convergence of engineering and biology is likely to lead to some nearer term breakthroughs that we don’t expect.
MS: In terms of the general public, and I know this book is geared more toward people who are not necessarily trained in science, I wanted to ask: what should people of today be learning, aware of, and know to prepare for the future in order to be active participants?
SG: The thing I worry most about, particularly for young people, is that they get miseducated by policy makers about science. Global climate change is an obvious one, where the science has taken a backseat to the policy discussions, and it’s largely the electorate who is responsible for putting people in office who say science is an optional discussion. In the world of Biology, we have similar concerns. GMO food is the most obvious. I do know the people involved in the science side of that. When you take the time to get educated about it, it’s like the vaccines or in vitro fertilization that we mention in the book. The very first organ transplants or in vitro fertilizations were terrifying. But when you went about them in the right way, for the right purpose, everybody found that you could do it safely, and that’s true for so many technically oriented things. Fear that is irrational can be easily overcome with a little bit of reading and a little bit of chatting with scientists or other people like me.
MS: Cool! Well we have about 15 minutes left on our hour- if you’re still available maybe we can go through the Futurism website and you can flag some posts- maybe we could even make you a profile! If you want to put comments…
SG: Let’s do it!
MS: OK! Awesome! Thank You!
SG: (laughs) Thank you. That was great, Mike.
You can get an ordinary or author-signed copy of the book through the official website, or download the audio book here. If you learned about the book through this interview, please mention it!
Special acknowledgement goes to Carol Carlson at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture for her guidance in preparing for the interview.
Dr. Gullans Mike Struharik