The Human 2.0 – Genome Imperfection and the Garden of Eden | Giulio Superti-Furga | TEDxLinz

The Human 2.0 – Genome Imperfection and the Garden of Eden | Giulio Superti-Furga | TEDxLinz


Translator: Behdad Khazaeli
Reviewer: Tanya Cushman Look at yourself. Look at each other. You’re imperfect. You know, you’re short. You have flat feet. You have a bulging belly. You may lose your hair. You’re clearly not perfect. And so the question is, Do we want to be perfect? If you were to choose – and you can look at me, but you can look at the people
sitting next to you – What are the properties
that you would improve? Would they be physical? Beauty? You know that beauty
is just the average? We tend to only like things
that are averaged out. So that is a relative concept. But maybe it is moral. Maybe you would like to improve yourself, perhaps be more patient or maybe have a longer memory. What I would like you to do
is to park this question and think about it a little bit while I continue to tell you my story. So, undoubtedly, what comes out of our genome
is very important for who we are; that we are humans and not another animal has to do with our genome. And I’ll remind you a little bit
what genomes are. The genome is the ensemble of your genes. Humans have some 23,000 different genes. They are in 46 chromosomes:
23 from your mother, 23 from your father. And they encode this sequence
of nucleotides – A, G , T , C – that makes this double helix that is the inherited material
that you pass on to another generation. Every cell of your body,
almost every cell has this. And what has happened is that now
we can sequence genomes very easily, or much more easily, than the first time – which was some 15 years ago – when the first human was sequenced. So what your generation,
my generation will face is the possibility of having your genome
sequenced as part of the medical routine. And this is something that we wanted
to explore in a cultural sense, in an educational sense, because we all would like to know
what these genomes are before we are facing, maybe,
a diagnostic that is based on this. And this is why this project,
Genom Austria, was started. And this is why, based on this, I decided to have my genome
sequenced first. And so this long stretch of nucleotide is something that was deciphered. And I can tell you a few of the things that happened
when I started dealing with it. The first thing is,
it is a huge piece of information. If you were to take telephone books, you would probably build a shelf that is big like the screen behind me, full of telephone books
with this information. Because it’s 3 billion nucleotides: A, T, T, C, C, C – If I read at this speed, which is a beat like 120 beats per minute, it would take me 50 years
to read out my genome. So that is a very boring
enterprise, believe me. And non-stop. Your cells can duplicate this – so they can read it and copy it – in 20 minutes. While you’re sitting here, several millions of times over, your cells would have read
and duplicated this thing that would take me 50 years to tell you. So the first thing is that it is big. The second thing, and it is,
at least at the beginning, very boring. Why is it boring? First, because you need to read a lot until you find the chapter
that is interesting, because the genes are only
in between a lot of other DNA that we don’t quite understand. And then, also, when you find the gene,
often it doesn’t tell you much. We start to understand the relationship between certain genes and certain diseases
and certain so-called traits, but we don’t quite know how
the concert of the genes comes together. Anyway, when we read my genome, what came out is that I have a mutation
in a gene that is called “beta globin.” And it’s sort of the hemoglobin. And the hemoglobin is – there are two chains, alpha and beta, and mutation in the beta is associated with a disease
that is called “thalassemia.” It’s a Mediterranean anemia. Now, luckily I’m heterozygote. So only if I have a child with somebody
who also has such mutation, we would have, potentially,
some children that have this. Now, this I knew because my family and me
come from a region in Italy where there was malaria
some 20,000 years ago, and it is known [as] a trait
that gives a little bit of protection. Then I have another mutation in a gene
called hemochromatosis, which is an iron defect,
an iron-accumulation defect, but as I am heterozygote,
I don’t suffer from it. And again, this depends
on what happens with the children. And then there are
some other mutations that I have. Some of them are giving
a little bit of an increase in terms of the predisposition
to certain cardiovascular or cancers. But then, there are some other mutations
that decrease that risk. And overall, I didn’t see anything that would incredibly change,
let’s say, my lifestyle or my way of thinking. But my way of thinking was influenced by seeing that I have
some three-point-something percentage of genes from Neanderthals. We all, most of us in the room, unless we are black African
who have remained in Africa, we have our genome
mixed with the Neanderthals. Because when 10,000 of us
left Africa some 50,000 – or maybe a little bit more – 100,000 years ago, we spread all over the universe – ah, excuse me, – the planet, really literally among the planet. And then those genes
are found back in all of us. But we also paired, probably some 20,000 years ago, with another group of hominids
that had left before, which are the Neanderthals. And at least you realize
that what you really are is the contribution of the history
of all of these people that then, in your blood, comes together. And it gives you a sense of belonging. And it gives you a sense of belonging,
also, not only to all other human beings but to all other living beings that also have this thread of code of life
that is called DNA, that is genome. So you start distinguishing
material that has DNA inside from things that do not have, like stones or, typically,
synthetic material. Wood, food, of course animal, plants,
bacteria, algae – all have it. And so you have a sense, you know,
we are really relatives. That is sort of an important thing
that one realized. The other point is that whatever
we are able to understand now is likely to become much more
interesting in the future. So, we don’t quite understand
the language of genes to a great detail, but we expect to be able to read it. And so the idea of putting
my genome online is to be able to have people
get a real sequence, play around with it – of course there are many
more others on the internet – but at least take away some of the scare. My life has not changed for the worse
for having put this sequence. But it is potentially dangerous. And so one of the things
that happened in recent times – and so I predict that most of you will get your genome sequenced
sooner or later because it’s convenient,
because it’s important, because it can give
a lot of medical information, the majority of which we will be able
to interpret in the future. But the point that I would like to make
is that almost overnight, in a relatively rapid sort of development, scientists learned how to edit the genome. How to change it. And that is different
from the previous gene technology because it can be done
in a very precise fashion without leaving traces other than the mutant
that you want to create in the genome. So for example, if for generations the way we wanted to have a better plant that was resistant to a particular virus
or that makes bigger fruits was to irradiate, with X-rays, this plant to make mutations randomly, 10,000 of mutations, just to be hoping that we would find one little plant that will have
bigger fruits or be resistant to a virus, now it can be done with a single mutation. Potentially a very interesting development that we are all very eager to see
if we can use in an intelligent way. The same is true for bad diseases, diseases in children who are suffering
from, for example, muscle waste. We expect in the future
to be able to correct the mutation in the muscle of the children so that they can live
and they can become grownups. And there are many, many cases
where this would be possible. But you’re starting [to get scared]. And you should get [scared] because this is really something that is changing the ability
that we have to do other things. For sure, there are some
beneficial aspects to this, for example, the ability
of re-engineering the environment to the point that
we can do bioremediation. So we can try to get rid of some of the sins
that we have done in the past by trying to make an environment
that is able to cope better with the types of things we have done and maybe also creating
other types of energies. The ability of changing
this genome is relatively new and, attached to the ability
to read genomes, is really changing a lot of things. And people have decided – I mean, people means scientists
together with politicians – have said, “Okay, for now,
we are not going to touch the germline,” which is the ability
of doing something to germ cells so you can pass it on
to another generation. Because that is a taboo. We don’t think that
is something that is clever. We don’t know, yet,
what we would do if we could do it. Would we make several genes
that protect us from cancer? Perhaps. Would we mutate a gene
that is involved in Alzheimer? Perhaps. If we knew about it, if we had a certainty
that it is a desirable thing, perhaps you would do it. Some of the younger people
in this room may see that happen. Now, because we had this uncertainty
and because we are scared, we are taking our time to think about it. And my message, if you want,
is that you should all think about it because it is going
to be affecting all of you. Are we going to influence
the future of humankind by changing some of the properties? Or the properties of plants
or the properties of bacteria? So that is an important point. So let’s think about
how we would change things. What are the things that we would change? Are there medical?
Are there other features? And the other point
is to do more research. And obviously, it is going
beyond the boundaries of the molecular biologist
and the molecular medical people, the geneticist. It should interest you all. So everybody should increase
their genetic literacy to be able to participate
in the discussion. It would be horrible if there would be a small group
of people with all the knowledge engineering themselves
a different type of humanity – maybe bigger, maybe stronger, maybe with the brains of collected notions from mutations or variants
associated with geniuses. And then the other people
don’t know anything about it. You know, exactly like Aldous Huxley
had described it in “Brave New World.” So it’s important everybody starts
thinking about it without being scared and think, okay, this is a possibility. And here I come
to the importance of research and the importance of being open to it by saying, “Okay,
let’s embrace this opportunity.” But now I would love to give you
a little bit of consideration that is philosophical. I’m not a philosopher; I’m a scientist. And I don’t have a solution,
but it blows my mind. Think about the time
of history on the planet. It is something like 3.5 billion years
that there is life on the planet. Life means there was something,
and it has to do with having a genome, having an inheritable material, and that turned out to be nucleic acids: first RNA, we think, but then DNA, just as the DNA that I was describing
to you is in all your cells. Now, 3.5 billion
is an incredible amount of time. And humans – and I’m not anthropologist – but let’s say that we start
calling humans people that can – the apes that started staying on two legs. Bipedalism, that is something like
three million years ago. And then you can say, okay, but staying
on two legs doesn’t make you a human. Let’s think about
when we started making fire. And that was one million years ago. One million years ago –
compared to 3.5 billion, really sort of in the last thousandths
of the history of the planet – came these strange apes that we are now here
making this interesting TED Talk. And these strange apes are now able, for the first time
in the history of the planet, not only to read the code
that makes them apes but also to change it, think about it. You are self-replicating machinery now, for the first time,
able to change its fate. Like a robot that can
self-code singularity. Now, irrespectively
of whether you have a mystical gene and you hear a divine music
behind all of this, or whether you are one of those people who get their kicks
by looking at the stars and feeling the gazillion of possibilities
that are associated with your existence and do not need to advocate
for divine intervention, or whether you believe in flying teapots. Irrespective of this,
this should blow your mind. You are the first generation
that can change the fate of humankind by changing what humankind means and by changing a lot
of other things on the planet. So in reality, I would need to sit down, take a glass of water, and out of this dizzy possibility, trying to realize what does it mean. Is it just a coincidence? Now, I don’t have an answer,
and I would like you to think about it. But I would like you also to think, What would you do
if you had these possibilities? Because we will have this possibility. Now we have this moratorium. Now we decided not to do much. But eventually, somebody
will come up and say, “Let’s protect ourselves
from cancer, and certainly, I don’t want to have my child
die at the year of five years of age, in a corner, shivering with pain.” So these are going to be moral challenges
that we are going to face, and we need to face them – but in a joyful way,
in a way that is empowering. And this act of self-reflection, unique in the history of humankind, believe me, it’s different
than having the wheel, of having invented electricity. Because this is something
that is changing the paradigm altogether. In this sense, it is going to be very important
to think, What would we do? And it is my expectation that the majority of things
that you would like to change are moral. We should stop
making war [with] each other, stop killing each other, stop killing animals, raping the planet, act as if we would be the only, let’s say,
living creature on the planet. And it is maybe a hope and a wish
that I would like to leave you with – that maybe out of our collective
responsibility will come the realization that it is not by changing our genes
that we will achieve all these things, but by the first knowledgeable
and willful act of self-reflection, making humanity 2.0 that is suddenly abandoning
its ape-like behavior for an adult, enlightened behavior where the genes
are not enhanced by mutation, but they’re enhanced virtually by what we think
we should be doing on the planet. Thank you very much. (Applause) Emcee: I still have a question. In my preparation for today,
I registered on your website, and I just wanted to know, Are you still looking for more people who might be interested
in decoding their genome? Giulio Superti-Furga: Absolutely.
So there is www.genomaustria.at. You should go there, read all about it, and we will be interested
in your candidating. What we now have is a system
by which you need to prove that you understand the risks
associated with knowing your genome. There are many risks that have to do with
the responsibility with your children because you may make
a decision for yourself, but it is difficult to make
the decision for your children. And if you pass that exam,
then you are eligible. And right now we have
a lot of people who are interested, and we have too little money
to be doing enough. But there is a lottery that helps us
select by random those people. So whether you consider it
luck or no-luck, maybe you are able
to get your genome sequenced. Emcee: Thank you. (Applause)

2 thoughts on “The Human 2.0 – Genome Imperfection and the Garden of Eden | Giulio Superti-Furga | TEDxLinz

  1. Well if a monkey edits its monkey code it stay's a monkey.
    Or monkey scientists are so arrogant that few of they'r discoveries makes them better then billion year tested natural app of genome update. I consider, the genome and cyborg human version 2.0 should be kept at hand as a weapon, but we do not have the adversary of any alien species who would have bad intentions (or would be capable of destruction) towards our planet. So this technology you speak about would be total overkill in solving our problems of ecosystem and etc. But if you wanna nuke the mosquito be my guest, ill gladly watch monkey behavior continuously.
    Best J.L

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