Pulse 99: CRISPR Could Create Superintelligent Humans

25 February 2019
Giulio Prisco

CRISPR Genetic Enhancement of Intelligence

Two Chinese twins, called Lulu and Nana, reportedly had their genes modified before birth (see Pulse 89, 90) by Chinese scientists using CRISPR. The goal was to make the girls immune to infection by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, by eliminating a gene called CCR5.

New research published last week shows that the same alteration introduced into the girls’ DNA, deletion of CCR5, not only makes mice smarter but also improves human brain recovery after stroke, and could be linked to greater success in school, MIT Technology Review reports.

The people who naturally lack CCR5 seem to recover more quickly from strokes. What’s more, people missing at least one copy of the gene seem to go further in school, suggesting a possible role in everyday intelligence. Previous experiments indicate that removing CCR5 from mice significantly improved their memory.

“Could it be conceivable that at one point in the future we could increase the average IQ of the population? I would not be a scientist if I said no,” says UCLA neurobiologist Alcino J. Silva. “The work in mice demonstrates the answer may be yes.”

MIT Technology Review notes that this inflates “speculation about whether CRISPR technology could one day be used to create super-intelligent humans, perhaps as part of a biotechnology race between the US and China.”

It is easy to predict that most “bioethicists” will be outraged. But to me, making people smarter doesn’t seem a bad idea.

Synthetic 8-letter DNA behaves like natural DNA. Synthetic biologists led by the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution have created a new kind of DNA in the lab. The new DNA, described in a research paper published in Science, doubles the four building blocks in natural DNA, making an 8-letter synthetic genetic system, called "hachimoji" DNA. The new synthetic DNA seems to behave like the natural variety, suggesting that chemicals beyond nature’s four familiar bases could support life, on Earth and elsewhere. “It’s a real landmark,” Floyd Romesberg, a chemical biologist at the Scripps Research Institute, told Nature News, adding that the study implies that there is nothing particularly “magic” or special about natural DNA. “That’s a conceptual breakthrough.”

A new form of communication in the brain. Biomedical engineering researchers at Case Western Reserve University have discovered a previously unidentified form of neural communication. New experiments described in a study published in Journal of Psychology indicated that weak electric fields generated when many neurons fire together excite other neural cells, produce electric fields of their own, and generate a self-propagating wave of activity.

Toward safer CRISPR. Scientists at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) have found a safer way to deliver CRISPR gene editing to cells. CRISPR/Cas9 is not 100 percent accurate and could potentially cut unexpected locations, causing unwanted results such as tumors or mutations. A research paper published in Nucleic Acids Research describes how the researchers addressed this issue by combining widely used delivery vehicles -- lentivirus vector and nanoparticles. According to the scientists, the new system could not only improve safety but also avoid possible immune response.

CRISPR therapy slows down aging in mice. Salk Institute researchers have developed a new gene therapy to help decelerate the aging process. The findings, published in Nature Medicine, highlight a novel CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing therapy that can suppress the accelerated aging observed in mice with Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that also afflicts humans. Two months after the delivery of the new single dose therapy, the mice were stronger and more active, with improved cardiovascular health.

CRISPR stably corrects DMD in mice. Researchers at Duke University have shown that a single systemic treatment using CRISPR genome editing technology can safely and stably correct a genetic disease - Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) - in laboratory mice. A study published in Nature Medicine shows that treated mice have been DMD-free for more than a year, despite observed immune responses and alternative gene editing outcomes.

Exercise and fasting enhance the removal of toxic proteins that cause disease. Scientists at Harvard Medical School have shown that vigorous exercise and fasting improve the ability of human and mouse cells to remove misfolded, toxic, unnecessary proteins. The research results, published in PNAS, reveal a previously unknown mechanism that activates the cells' protein-disposal machinery, allowing them to adapt their protein content to shifting demands and new conditions. The researchers are persuaded that the findings set the stage for the development of therapies that harness the cells' natural ability to dispose of proteins and thus enhance the removal of toxic proteins that cause disease.

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