Futurescape (2013) s01e04 Episode Script

Replacing God

[ Cheers and applause ] That guy is a very successful Senator.
He's rich, smart.
He's handsome.
He's got it all.
And now Ah! so does someone else.
You see that little cut? It wasn't an accident.
It was a robbery.
The thief just stole the Senator's DNA.
And it should bring some big bucks on the black market because the Senator isn't just a hot shot he's a genetically engineered human being created from scratch in a lab.
In the future, it'll be hard to tell what is made by God and what is made by man.
Captions by vitac captions paid for by discovery communications the Senator just had his DNA hacked.
The genetic code that makes him who he is can now be re-engineered or replicated.
Now, clients will pay top dollar for that prime DNA on the black market.
But buyer beware things are not always as they seem.
There are unintended consequences to tinkering with evolution.
Humans may have the knowledge to play God with life, but will we have the same divine wisdom? In bioengineering labs across the globe, scientists have harnessed a power once reserved for the gods the ability to create life where there was none.
Whatever your beliefs, a new guiding force is emerging to shape our future a world where we can bring creatures to life that once existed only in our imaginations.
Dr.
kaku: In the 20th century, we built structures made out of iron, steel, and concrete.
In the 21st century, we're gonna transform the world with bioengineering with structures made out of living tissue, cells treating them like nuts and bolts that can be rearranged in different ways.
We're gonna be able to take cells and organisms and design them to carry out specific tasks.
We are beginning to design life.
Woods: Right now scientists at caltech and Harvard are re-engineering living tissue to create biological entities that could change the definition of life.
Pretty, isn't it? Just your typical artificial jellyfish, unless you're on the waiting list for a heart transplant.
Dubbed "Medusoid," This groundbreaking hybrid of living tissue and synthetic materials is the first step towards building a human heart from scratch.
Nawroth: The medusoid at this point is considered something like a mixture between a robot and engineered tissue.
Woods: The inspiration for medusoid sprang from an observation that the pulses propelling a jellyfish through water are eerily similar to the pumping of a human heart.
Scientists theorize that if they could successfully engineer an artificial jellyfish, they could one day use a similar design to create a self-powered biological pacemaker or even a new heart.
But appearances can be deceiving.
Medusoid is 100% jellyfish free.
Nawroth: The two components of the medusoid are the silicon base and wet, hot cells.
The silicon base is purely synthetic, whereas the red, hot cells have to be harvested, at this point, from a real rat.
Woods: In a manner worthy of Dr.
Frankenstein, scientists sculpted medusoid's body out of silicon, then covered it with muscle cells from a rat's heart.
The cells were genetically pre-programmed to move in regular contractions.
The hope being, these contractions would make medusoid pulse and move.
The engineering challenge has been bringing these cells to life and making them work in unison.
It's a two-step approach.
Nawroth: The way we achieve that is that we coat this elastic membrane with a particular protein.
It's called fibronectin.
Woods: Found on the exterior of the heart, fibronectin aligns the individual cells into an organized pattern.
With all the pieces in place, there's one more step breathing life into medusoid with a jolt of electricity.
The medusoid needs an external signal.
We emerged two electrodes into the bath that provide the electric signal to trigger the contraction.
Woods: The charge hits the cells, and like a group of tiny synchronized swimmers, they contract.
Suddenly, like its sea-dwelling cousins, medusoid begins to swim.
The small creature's motion mimics the beating of a human heart, generating hope for its ultimate goal.
Nawroth: We wanted to re-create the function of pumping, which a jellyfish performs in a very efficient manner so that we can, at some point, maybe, use a more complicated model system like a human heart and build that as well.
Woods: When that day comes, the rat cells will be replaced by harvested human stem cells to create a biological match a spare heart made to order.
But for now, the immediate challenge medusoid faces is functioning free of its electronic tether.
Nawroth: I think it's not far off that the medusoid could actually swim on its own.
It's really just a bit of tinkering.
Woods: The implications of this jellyfish creation swimming under its own power are enormous.
Will we be looking at a living thing? Each muscle cell by itself has a lot of the properties that identify them or categorize them as life.
I think the question is more, "Do they together form an entity that we can consider alive?" allhoff: There really is no widely agreed-upon definition of life.
Scientists and philosophers have disagreed on this for a long time.
Nawroth: If you look up the definition of "Life," it just says a life cannot really be defined, but usually is agreed on that it has a certain range of properties and that includes, for example, reproduction and growth and adaptation and behaviors, but it doesn't exclude synthetic components.
I mean, it's a little bit like the definition of "Consciousness" We can't really define it because we don't know what it is.
Willard: Within the field of synthetic biology and synthetic genomics, one can sort of divide up the categories into little building blocks.
It's the engineer's view, if you will, of how life is put together.
We're biologists, we're engineers trying to figure out how life works.
On the other side becomes then the question once we understand it, how do we use it? When Mary Shelley wrote the novel, "Frankenstein," she wrote about a humanlike creature that was perceived to be a perversion of nature.
But in the future, we're gonna be facing similar ethical questions as we begin the process of designing life.
Uldrich: As we continue to progress down this road, we have to really think through the implications of what all of this means.
We are now playing God, so we better get used to playing that role.
Woods: Tinkering with the parts and pieces of living organisms may help us build a better world, but what will we do with the power to master the process that designed life? When humans finally have control over evolution, will we begin to redesign the biological world one cell at a time? Are the dishes done? Yep.
All done.
Woods: Who needs a dishwasher? Those plates are squeaky clean thanks to critters pre-programmed to eat food and waste.
Bioluminescent organisms light the way.
There are no machines.
There's no electricity.
100% organic.
Life designed to spec.
Dr.
kaku: Millions of years of evolution have produced animals with some of the most amazing traits.
Bacteria that can eat pesticides or even nylon.
But what happens if one day we can accelerate evolution by thousands of times? We could create creatures with some of the most amazing traits animals that serve a purpose.
Woods: Dr.
frances Arnold, a chemical and bioengineering Professor at caltech, is on a quest to engineer the next generation of genetic traits.
But she's not waiting around for nature to produce them.
She's forcing evolution's hand by creating mutant genes.
Evolution is the powerful algorithm for biological design.
It's made everything in the biological world.
So, what we do is we use these same processes that incur in nature, but we speed them up.
Woods: Arnold turns out thousands of generations of new traits in the time it takes for nature to make a single generation of mice.
It's evolutionary change happening over the course of weeks, even days.
She's hoping to discover a new revolutionary variant of nature's most powerful tools proteins.
Dr.
Arnold: I love to play with proteins.
Proteins are the machinery of life.
They do all of the work of living systems.
Proteins allow bacteria to swim, they have little motors, copy things, catalyze chemical reactions.
They do all of the things that machines do for us.
Woods: But unlike mother nature, Arnold can tap into the vast diversity of the entire natural world at will.
Sometimes we start with a specific protein and set of features we want to end up with, but other times we say, "What will happen if we recombine this DNA from termites "And this DNA from bacteria and try to make a new enzyme that will break down cellulose and make sugars?" woods: When DNA replicates, its mutations form a permanent change in the genetic code.
While many of those changes are the source of disease, for Dr.
Arnold, they're an opportunity.
She uses reagents to encourage mutations and watches as they evolve.
We want to know how they behave.
We want to know what kinds of reactions they catalyze.
Once you start changing with their program, you're not sure what they can do.
Woods: Playing the role of mother nature, Arnold fast-forwards through millions of years of natural selection.
She tests the baby proteins to determine which ones possess traits the most useful to mankind.
I think of it as my very large sandbox, and inside this sandbox are the cures to cancer and the energy crisis.
We make ethanol to make fuels, to make chemicals, to make food all of these things are possible.
I just have to find them, and that's my challenge.
Woods: The same technology that creates mutant microbes and yeast cells could eventually be applied to animals, even humans.
The possibilities are limitless.
Dr.
Arnold: That means you're no longer limited to two parents.
You could have 32 parents.
You don't have to recombine cats, you can recombine monkeys and worms and fungi and bacteria if you want.
And you can mix all this DNA in the test tube and explore what kinds of new proteins might come from these different kingdoms of life.
In the past, evolution has been a way of genetic screening darwinism, survival of the fittest.
What we are doing, though, with advancing our genetic technology, is taking control of the evolutionary process and making it better.
Dr.
kraft: We're at this new era of do-it-yourself biology D.
I.
Y.
Bio where a teenager in a garage, for a couple hundred dollars, can have the power of what used to be a multi-million dollar molecular biology lab a few years ago.
So, that has great promise, but also has some potential downsides in terms of security.
Woods: Today in labs around the globe, humans are trying to improve the process responsible for creating all living things.
But if we're truly going to give evolution an upgrade, we'll have to redesign the dominant species ourselves.
This one's a really popular one right now.
Woman: I really like that blue.
Oh, do you? I prefer the green actually.
Let me try the green.
Honey, let's just do blue.
No, let's go with green.
Let's skip that for now.
Let's talk about the teeth.
Now, let's face it young couples already have enough trouble designing a color scheme for their living room.
Imagine designing your unborn child.
You see, this began as a way for young couples to ensure that they had healthy babies, but as we tinker with our DNA to eliminate disease and disorders, we may also be on the brink of directing our own genetic destiny, bucking natural selection.
So, does that mean that we're designing a super species or playing a game not meant for mortals? Dr.
kaku: In Greek and Roman mythology, the gods gave birth to incredible offspring with divine powers.
However, in the future, it'll be science, and not mythology, that allows us to design extraordinary children.
Natural selection will be decommissioned as we begin the process of re-creating our genetic heritage.
Woods: Today in the lab of Dr.
bernhard zimmermann, humans have already begun to override natural selection.
Parents looking to protect their unborn children can sift through and weed out the undesirable parts of their own genetic make-up.
What I'm really working on is next-generation sequencing.
Woods: Genetic sequencing allows parents to discover almost everything about the genetic material they're passing along to their offspring.
It begins by fertilizing an egg in vitro and letting it divide into multiple embryonic cells.
The cell basically has a complete genome of the growing human in it and one copy of every single sequence that there is.
Woods: The scientists can screen each cell's DNA for genetic conditions, like down syndrome or huntington's disease.
The key to the process is microarrays tiny slides that hold DNA probes, chemically engineered matches for the genes they're targeting.
Zimmermann: Microarrays, they basically have a set of probes, DNA sequences, that are complimentary to the DNA sequences the couple wants to analyze.
Woods: To screen for the gene that causes huntington's disease, the team can create a DNA sequence that's designed to bind with that particular gene.
The probes are tagged with a luminescent material that glows when the match is made and indicates that huntington's is present.
By the intensity of the light that's measured on the spot on the microarray, you can determine which sequences are present, which sequences are present at higher copy numbers, and which sequences are not present.
Woods: If a bad gene is detected in a cell, the geneticist can eliminate it from the pool.
What's left are only healthy cells that can be harvested and reimplanted into the womb.
The parents can rest assured they haven't passed along any genetic disorder.
And zimmermann is now working on a non-invasive way to pull the child's DNA directly from the mother's blood.
But soon, parents will be able to sift through just about any trait they wish to erase from their genetic history.
Dr.
kaku: The baby doctors of the future will be quite different from the ob-gyns of today.
They'll be biochemists and engineers.
They'll be able to reshape the human race.
They'll be able to create the best of the best.
Eventually, we'll be able to weed out bad traits, like acne or allergies, but perhaps even depression or addiction.
Woods: But in the end, this process can only eliminate dangerous or undesirable genes, and the child is limited to the genetic make-up of his parents.
To have full control of our genetic destiny, we need to tap into the vast array of human genetic material, choose whatever genes we desire, and implant them directly into embryos.
We need the ability to reinvent our genetic code at will.
At Duke university, Dr.
Charles gersbach has found a way to alter DNA with pinpoint accuracy.
Up until recently, the only methods that you had to deliver new genes into cells had no control over where those genes went within the human genome.
There were many unforeseen negative consequences to this approach.
Woods: But with a technique called genome editing, humans are in the driver's seat of our own evolution.
Dr.
gersbach: What we're looking at is the genetic sequence that we're interested in modifying.
With the genome editing technology, we really have the ability to either add, remove, or exchange DNA at any site in the genome that we're interested in.
And it's a very simple concept if you have a genetic disease, you can just replace it with a healthy copy of the defective gene.
Woods: Gersbach and his team achieve this by creating synthetic enzymes.
They're made up of proteins, engineered to attach themselves to targeted sites.
Ousterout: So, what we've basically done is we've taken our recipe and we've put the DNA blocks together according to that recipe and now this will assemble them into the final product.
Woods: That final product enzymes that can cut and remove or alter the selected DNA.
But getting them into the cell requires a microscopic trojan horse.
Anytime that you want to add or exchange genetic material inside of a cell, you need to find a way to deliver that genetic material across the barriers, like the cell membrane and the nuclear membrane.
We're taking viruses, we remove all of the disease-causing parts of the virus, and replace them with genes that can cure disease.
Woods: Safely inside the nucleus, the enzyme can find its target and replace the offending DNA.
And what we see just by roughly inspecting the data that we've actually managed to introduce highly efficient corrections to this population of cells very easily using our designer enzymes.
Ideally, the development of these technologies is going to lead to a world where we don't have to worry about hereditary disease and we don't have to observe sick children that we're utterly unable to help, but it could also be used for augmentation or enhancing certain human traits.
Woods: This could be a world where your baby comes with a health guarantee.
Allhoff: If it's to edit out disease, that's got to be okay.
But if it's to change eye color or to change body-fat percentage or propensities toward these things, then maybe it starts to look a little trickier.
Woods: If you hated the fact that your parents made you get a stupid haircut, wait until they're deciding your skin color, your height, or your figure.
Willard: When do we cross the line and which kinds of lines are we willing to cross in moving us forward as either individuals or a society or as a species? Woods: As the gene pool is homogenized with nicer eyes and straighter teeth, something vital is lost diversity, the key to species surviving.
Playing around with genetic codes is a very dangerous field.
If we get rid of that particular characteristic, have we, as a society, suddenly lost some of our human diversity diversity that was in fact important, but we just were too arrogant to see it? Smart: We've seen societies, like maoist China, where harmony and unity is the primary objective.
These are abject failures, these societies.
There's far too little diversity in them and they can't survive.
We don't know the downstream effects of all of those sort of manipulations.
General safety might dictate that we restrict parents' ability to make those sorts of decisions, at least until we have more information.
Woods: But even if certain genetic editing were banned, the technology could be difficult to stop.
After all, a parent's desire to give her children every advantage is hardwired by evolution.
Willard: It could change everything.
It comes down to a philosophical perspective.
Either the genome is a product of evolution, we change it only when we need to save lives and advance lives, or it's a free-for-all, and we simply say we're the ones who figured out how to manipulate the genomes, so in fact, that is our darwinian advantage.
Woods: By tapping into the vast human gene pool, from the traits of billions of individuals around the world, we will be drafting the blueprint for the future of humanity.
It's a blueprint possessing features beyond our imagination because our DNA has a secret a remnant of our past that will allow us to resurrect genes once lost to time.
Woods: A game of hide-and-seek would be very different if you were playing with cro-magnon man.
You see, our ancestors had some pretty impressive survival skills, like a sense of smell that would rival that of a bloodhound.
But as we evolved, those traits faded away, just like overall body hair and knuckle dragging.
Oh, man, buddy.
You're good.
While those traits are gone, the genetic traces are still there.
Less than 2% of our DNA contains coding genes.
The rest is genomic dark matter whose function is unclear.
This mysterious material could hold a treasure trove of extinct genetic traits that may become relevant once again.
Dr.
kuka: We share about 85% of our genes with the zebrafish.
So, in principle, there's no scientific reason why we can't have gills.
People can be engineered, perhaps, to live in the oceans.
Woods: Today that bizarre scenario is becoming a reality thanks to a research team at Montana state university.
They're figuring out how we can customize our DNA by raiding our genetic dark matter for long-lost traits.
Their goal is to awaken the dormant genes of a chicken to express the traits of its ancient ancestor a dinosaur.
Blackwell: Instead of trying to make a dinosaur, we're reverse-engineering the chicken to make it look like a dinosaur.
A chickenosaurus or a dino-chicken.
Woods: To paleontologist Jack horner, this is the first step in a lifelong dream a chance to resurrect and re-create biological traits that have been dormant for eons.
I have always wanted to have a dinosaur.
I've always thought it'd be really cool if we could just have one, and now, I think we've realized the fact that we actually could.
Woods: Jack is a true pioneer first man to find dinosaur eggs in the Western hemisphere, first to actually examine a dinosaur embryo, and he's one of the first to try to recover dino DNA from fossils.
We originally attempted to extract DNA from a dinosaur, and we were able to get soft tissues, proteins, but unfortunately, no DNA.
Woods: Failing to find dino DNA pushed Jack to a radical new idea.
If the original genetic material is gone, maybe he could use the DNA of their descendents instead.
The easiest way that we could make an animal that looks sort of like a dinosaur is to use these things we call atavisms, and basically they're ancestral characteristics.
All birds have a common ancestor and that common ancestor is a dinosaur.
There was a big extinction of them that took out what we called the non-avian dinosaurs, but the avian dinosaurs birds are still with us.
Woods: In every animal's DNA, there are inactive genes.
Some contain codes for lost traits that have been hidden by thousands of years of mutation, like the body fur mankind shed long ago.
But those transformations took time and thousands of complex interactions.
So, giving a chickenosaurus back its dino-tail is a lot more complicated than flipping an on/off switch.
Rashid: Basically we all start off with tails, and what happens as embryos, is you actually grow a tail, and then that tail degenerates back if you're a creature that doesn't have a tail.
So, what we're gonna try to do, initially, is to stop this process of degeneration and see if that will actually maintain that tail structure in the chicken.
Woods: But this only ensures that the tail's basic structure survives.
It's down to another gene, called a promoter, to create a tail that actually resembles that of a dinosaur's.
If Jack and his team can combine the right concoction of genes, they may be able to bring the dinosaurs back one trait at a time.
But the real payoff is using the same manipulation on humans.
Wallach: If you introduce dinosaurs into the modern world or if we create a new tribe of neanderthals, are we doing them any favor? Or is there some real purpose that will serve the betterment of humanity in the process of creating them? Rahid: If we can grow a tail, maybe we could help someone who has an injury maybe paralysis victims.
Allhoff: Research that would reactivate some of those genes, potentially could figure out important genes that went dormant and could turn them back on, but then we would wonder if those genes were important, why did they go dormant in the first place? If we had access to every single genetic trait that ever existed on the planet earth, where would we stop? On one hand, we could change the genetic destiny of the entire species, but on the other hand, at the individual level, we can make all of us unique hybrids.
Woods: Who knows how far scientists or genetic hackers can push the limits of our species.
Humans that can smell like a bloodhound, see like an owl, or breathe underwater thanks to modified gills.
But the core of creation is intelligence the ability to engineer a living, thinking mind is the ultimate in bio-design intervention.
But what if we could make a mind as small as a molecule or as fluid as water, and what if those minds could infuse inanimate objects with reason? Woods: The living, thinking mind may be the most complex and impressive creation in all of nature.
But what if a brain could take on a radically different form? What if it were possible to make a mind out of liquid and pour it into a glass, make it into a table, or plaster it into the walls? Imagine being surrounded by walls that not only had eyes, but also a memory.
Wallach: How is a memory recorded in a molecular structure? How do organic substances give rise to the mental states? It's one of the great mysteries of science.
Woods: Learning how molecules remember is the focus of Dr.
Lulu qian and her team at a lab in Southern California.
Okay, now we have the DNA signature ready.
Every memory you have the joys, the triumphs, the pains are encoded in neurons.
But exactly how a memory is stored in a bundle of brain cells is still a mystery.
That's why qian is reengineering a system for biological memory.
It could lead to the creation of an intelligent, self-aware breed of molecules.
In human history, a lot of different computing substrate have been used, such as Springs and gears, and then to vacuum tubes, and now to transistors.
But no one has used encomputing substrate as wet and squishy and small as molecules.
Woods: A liquid mind could be placed almost anywhere into the walls, into machines to diagnose mechanical failures, or into the cells of our bodies to diagnose biological wounds.
The secret is the ability to store information at the molecular level inside our DNA.
These building blocks of life are also nature's data storage system.
DNA stores information by a very simple chemical code where the order of four different chemicals serves as the storage of the information, but that information could be used to store anything, just like zeros and ones are used to store information on a computer.
Woods: Qian's computer uses DNA molecules that she designed herself.
She uses unpaired DNA strands that transmit the input and output of information.
So, in our system, we have those double strands DNA partially paired and have some unpaired parts sticking out like tails.
Then a single strand can first stick to the tail, and if their sequences match, the single strand will zip itself up to one of the strands in the double helix, while displacing another strand.
Woods: Information is passed along the cascade of DNA molecules.
The entire system of DNA strands is capable of recognizing patterns and filling in missing information.
It has the memory capacity of four neurons.
That may not sound like much to those of us with 100 billion neurons, but this biological computer is already advanced enough to play a game with humans.
We designed a fun game called "Guess your mind.
" the human player will think of a scientist choosing from these four and then try to answer some of these four questions.
Woods: Qian challenges her brain soup by providing only one answer to the set of four questions.
Each answer is represented by patterns of DNA that are recognized by the liquid mind.
It also knows when parts of those patterns are missing.
So, with only one answer, the mind can fill in the missing data and guess the correct scientist.
Qian waits as it processes, and an added florescent element will signal the DNA's answer.
Dr.
qian: So, we'll be able to see the plots looking like that.
In some of the channels, the florescent signal will go high, looking like this one or that one.
The answer to the second question should be no.
Woods: The florescent signals reveal that the DNA has filled in the answers to the other three questions, which fit only one scientist.
The answer I was thinking was Santiago Ramon y cajal, so the DNA sociative memory made the correct guess.
Woods: They tested dozens of different answer combinations and every single time, the artificial neurons came up with the right answer.
If you create, let's say a DNA computer, and put that inside individual cells, it would be able to collect information from its own environment and then try to regulate the cell's behavior.
The most powerful capability of neural network is the capability to learn.
This is where I plan to take my research to.
Woods: If qian can create a soup of DNA proteins that thinks, perhaps any material can be given these same properties of organic intelligence, but is that artificial, organic mind a conscious being? Allhoff: If you can make a brain, have you created a person? Have you created someone with moral status? So, replicating the human brain raises a host of not just ethical, but also philosophical questions.
I think it's kind of one of the big mysteries that there really is something like a soul.
It's easy for some scientists to argue, "No, there is nothing," that all of life is reduced to biochemistry.
" and I think we're getting into an area where a little humility on our part is in order.
Woods: When we can whip up a living, thinking being in a glass, we will be master manipulators of nature.
So, what then could we create or unleash when we cut nature out of the equation altogether? Woods: Well, looks like our hacker's taking up a new, more dangerous trade making and selling XNA, an artificial chemical soup that can replace DNA.
It's stronger, more durable, and unbound by the shackles of nature.
Now, no one knows how volatile these new organic building blocks will be.
But one thing's for certain in the wrong hands, they'll be devastating.
And the first victim could be faith.
After all, who needs God when you can do his job for him? Dr.
kaku: Imagine creating a new organism at an entirely fundamental level.
Something that could consume carbon dioxide, survive in harsh weather, live in different hostile chemical environments, even on the planet Mars.
We could be creating an entirely new branch of life.
Woods: Welcome to genesis 2.
0 the origin of lifeAgain.
That might sound like heresy, but like it or not, the patent on life could become ours.
At the bio-design institute in tempe, Arizona, Dr.
John chaput and his team have rewritten the rules that governed life on earth for three and a half billion years.
They've turned inorganic matter into a molecule that can replicate itself.
Dr.
chaput: All of life is based on a nucleic-acid polymer with ribose as its sugar, or deoxyribose in the case of DNA, but why is that? The basic research question that we're interested in is are there other genetic materials that could function equally as well, and if so, what are those materials and what do they look like? Woods: Chaput responded with a shocking, little molecule he designed from synthetic materials.
Dr.
chaput: XNA's completely alien.
It's completely foreign.
It's not found in any of our cells.
There are no enzymes inside our cells that recognize it, and so, any type of work on XNA has to be done in the laboratory.
Woods: "Xeno" Is Greek for "Foreign" Or "Alien.
" translation proceed at your own risk.
The process begins by engineering a synthetic sugar, the scaffolding of XNA.
Dr.
chaput: Here we have my student, Richard, who is taking our XNA building blocks, which at this point, are really just a powder.
The building blocks of XNA, like its counterparts DNA and rna are composed of a nucleic base, phosphates, and a sugar molecule.
It's this simple sugar molecule that gives each block its shape, and that spells the difference between DNA and XNA.
So, here we have the classic Watson-crick DNA double helix.
We've got the genetic letters in the middle, which form the Watson-crick base spheres, and then on the outside, we have the molecular framework that holds this molecule together, which really consists of repeating sugars connected by phosphates.
Now, with XNA, what we did is we substituted this naturally occurring sugar here for a synthetic, unnatural sugar.
Woods: That tiny change in sugars creates an entirely new basis for life.
And these building blocks may be stronger and more durable than DNA.
XNA is actually much more stable than DNA in terms of its resistance to certain enzymes, because it's a completely unnatural backbone.
Woods: The same enzymes responsible for catalyzing replication in DNA also break it down, so with no natural enemies, it could last significantly longer.
This could mean the creation of truly immortal life forms.
Organisms can be designed to live in space, in toxic environments, or in our own bodies for generations.
Dr.
chaput: We discovered that by doing directed evolution experiments directly on XNA molecules.
It could retain its genetic information through iterative rounds of selection and amplification.
Woods: XNA was not only replicating, it was passing down genetic information to the next generation, like a parent to a child.
Evolution has begun all over again.
If something can evolve, then most likely it will evolve.
If XNA is allowed to reproduce, then perhaps it could create a new tree of life.
And then what happens if XNA turns out to be stronger than our DNA? What happens when it blends with our DNA? There's an interesting parallel between XNA and say, genetically modified crops.
If we have oranges that are genetically modified, we look at them as somehow standing outside of nature and not being real oranges.
Maybe people, if you meet somebody in the shopping mall, you want to see a label knowing whether they have external DNA or XNA.
Woods: The more it's regulated, the more it would go underground, where D.
I.
Y.
Biologists could create strands of nearly indestructible life.
It could unleash an evolutionary monster, but our own belief system may be at risk as well.
Hughes: Well, there are a lot of ways in which our growing scientific understanding of the world has decentered the grandiose illusion that the universe was created for us and that we're the center of it.
We were the product of a random walk of mammals.
We don't necessarily have a divinely sanctioned future.
This gives us the responsibility to take control of our destiny.
Woods: For billions of years, life on the blue planet has been guided by the invisible hand of evolution.
Now a new world is coming where we can create novel creatures from living cells, awaken sleeping genes, control evolution, and engineer a brand-new chemistry for life.
In other words, when technology catches up to God and makes evolution obsolete, we are in uncharted waters.
Now the question is can we handle the most seismic power in the cosmos or will future generations learn the hard way how playing God was a devastating mistake?