By Dr Claire Walker
Paid-up member of the Dream Team since 2013, token immunologist and occasional defector from the Immunology Mafia. Registered clinical scientist in immunology with a background in genetics (PhD), microbiology and immunology (MSc), biological sciences (mBiolSci) and indecisiveness (everything else). Now a senior lecturer in immunology at University of Lincoln.
A clinical immunologist and part-time geneticists’ thoughts on Oryx and Crake by Margret Atwood.
This is Atwood’s vision of a dystopian future told across a trilogy of books. Each provides more detail on how we failed to avoid disaster despite multiple opportunities – art imitating life in 2021? A mad scientist bioengineers a humanity-ending virus and replaces humans with his genetically engineered vision of perfection, then leaves them in the hands of his old best mate. The protagonist struggles to survive in the dystopian future whilst recounting the tale of his pre-apocalypse life, and his role in the oncoming catastrophe. Well, we are all old hat at the viral apocalypse these days so let’s talk about something else; genetic engineering.
Atwood’s writing is speculative rather than science fiction. This slight bend of the genre bases its roots in technologies that exist today, and their potential consequences. Here, Atwood imagines profit as the sole motivator of advancements in genetic manipulation technologies with our ethical committees cast aside. Oryx and Crake was penned back in 2003 so whilst we may have had our suspicions about the tech back then, these days much of what Atwood discusses is inching closer to scientific fact.
Let’s start with ChickieNobs, the nightmarish endpoint of laboratory grown meat. A bulblike object comprised of chicken parts with a head in the middle. Today’, laboratory grown meat is in its infancy and is hailed as an environmental wonder: the ‘no kill’ solution for vegetarians hankering for a burger. Just don’t ask about where those meat stem cells come from, or the nutrients required to grow laboratory meat.
Pigoons, or Sus multiorganifer to give them their Latin name, are described as a method of producing human organs in pigs. Sounds like a perfect solution to our growing shortage of organs for transplant. To see this reflected in reality, one only need look to the work of Juan Belmonte. His team uses CRISPR technologies to turn off genes that make pig organs and replaces them with those to make humans. In her dystopian vision, Atwood considers the ultimate consequence of this, the development of human-like intelligence in these animals to go along with their human genetic material.
With my word count rapidly diminishing we’ll consider the Crakers, the bioengineered quasi-humans. These gentle creatures epitomise the pinnacle of genetic modification: humans that don’t harm each other or their environment. Not quite the X-men we comic book geeks would like. Today, the application of CRISPR technologies seems to know no bounds. We are living through a time of unprecedented genetic developments at a startling pace. Each day science fiction merges a little more with scientific fact but thanks to our rigorous ethical approval process, one hopes we can avoid living in an Atwoodian nightmare for at least a little while longer.
TLDR: The epitome of biopeversity, edging into a little too close for comfort. So many lessons could be learnt from Atwood, but humans are rarely good at learning our lessons. After all, as the old saying goes, the bioengineered-quasi human species will inherit the earth.
https://www.wired.com/story/belmonte-crispr-human-animal-hybrid-organs/ – for more details on the real Pigoons
or try https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/06/embryo-experiments-take-baby-steps-toward-growing-human-organs-livestock if you like your science a bit more science-y
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All opinions on this blog are my own