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The Science of Jurassic World: Genetic Engineering on the Human Race

By Christina Najjar

In the new film Jurassic World, personnel operating the Mesozoic- themed park argue the consumers’ desire for dinosaurs that are “bigger, scarier, more teeth” (“Rapturous Applause”, 2015, para.3); in the real world, the Department of Defense (DoD) is essentially demanding the same of our soldiers. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), often known as the “mad scientist wing” (Gayle, 2012) of the DoD, has allocated an annual budget of $2 billion to several different projects all working towards building a supersoldier( Posel, 2013, para. 1). (I’m not saying Captain America, but Captain America.)  The main hope for accomplishing such a feat lies in genetic engineering, the same process fictitiously responsible for creating Jurassic World’s mutant species Indominus Rex.

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This scientific branch functions primarily through the adaption of foreign genes- segments of DNA which produce specific hereditary traits.

This scientific branch functions primarily through the adaption of foreign genes- segments of DNA which produce specific hereditary traits. By taking the genes which correspond to a desired characteristic and splicing them into the DNA of a new organism, scientists can manipulate the host’s gene expressions so that its abilities become enhanced, and in some cases, completely unnatural to the original being (“Genetic Engineering”, n.d.). In the movie, this method gave the Indominus Rex heightened intelligence, prodigious teeth, control over personal body temperature, and extraordinary camouflage capabilities. Here are four ways DARPA aims to similarly use genetic modification to alter the human race.

1.  Superhuman Stamina: Food and Sleep Unnecessary

DARPA’s Continuous Assisted Performance Program’s current goal is to discover biotechnological methods that allow soldiers to function without food or sleep for up to seven days (Seal, 2003). Scientists have looked to the animal kingdom for these answers, with a particular interest in bottlenose dolphins and the sled dogs of the Iditarod. Sam Ridgway, Ph.D. in neurobiology from the University of Cambridge and President of the National Marine Animal Foundation, is conducting research to discover how dolphins remain vigilant for extended durations of time. Scientists have found that these mammals have to ability to practice unihemispheric sleep (Castro, 2003). The phenomena is that while one hemisphere of the brain is asleep, the other half remains alert. When tired, the dolphin simply wakes up the now refreshed portion of its brain while the weary section goes to sleep. Studies starring two bottlenose dolphins have repeatedly demonstrated the animals’ ability to last five days in this state with no decrease in activity or attentiveness. By determining which genes make this inherent trait possible, DARPA hopes to trigger the same ability in its soldiers. According to Joel Garreau, professor at Arizona University and reporter for The Washington Post, DARPA is also attempting to alter the genes that control the body’s metabolism (Posel, 2013, para. 5).

Studies starring two bottlenose dolphins have repeatedly demonstrated the animals’ ability to last five days in this state with no decrease in activity or attentiveness.

By modifying the rate at which fat is converted into pure energy, soldiers could, in theory, go without food for days. The most promising avenue of inquiry is a project investigating the Huskies and Malamutes of the Iditarod and how they are capable of running thousands of miles without developing extreme debility. The head of the project, Dr. Michael S. Davis, professor of Veterinary Physiology at  Oklahoma State University, has discovered that these dogs reserve their fat and glycogen stores by spontaneously changing their metabolic rates. This capability allows the animals to run 100 miles a day with a slowed metabolism similar to the one assumed when sleeping; in less than 24 hours, they are able to switch back to their usual metabolic rate, one that is similar to a man’s (Robson, 2008).  If this genetic trait could be adapted to humans, soldiers would have insurmountable endurance and stamina on the battlefield.

2. Superhuman Immunology: Mutant Blood Cells

In the future, DARPA hopes to offer blood transfusions with genetically engineered red blood cells making soldiers virtually impervious to all types of germ warfare. They have financed a new project that researches how human red blood cells can be engineered to carry natural antitoxins with the ability to neutralize fatal biotoxins. Traditionally, these cells function as the delivery system between oxygen and the body’s living tissues; these genetically modified blood cells are now capable of carrying ‒ even producing  ‒ protein antidotes and antibody-derived drugs designed to target specific poisons. Harvey Lodish of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research explains:

We wanted to create high-value red cells that do more than simply carry oxygen. Here we’ve laid out the technology to make human red blood cells in culture that can express what we want and potentially be used for therapeutic or diagnostic purposes (Connors, 2014).

The cells respond well to the genetic manipulation, specifically because they lack chromosomes and are therefore incapable of replicating to produce cancerous cysts and tumors. Additionally, this mutated blood can circulate in vascular systems for up to four months, providing soldiers in the field with an ample repository of antitoxins that activate immediately when required.

3. Superhuman Strength, Speed, and Regeneration Abilities

The Metabolic Dominance and Engineered Tissue Program is the true supersoldier initiative, researching methods to increase a soldier’s endurance, muscular strength, and physical invincibility (Seal, 2003). All three of these caveats are dependent in some form on muscle fibres. By rewiring a human’s genetic coding to produce different types and quantities of fibres, soldiers could possess superhuman strength and speed (Check out this University of Georgia alumni, Peter Weyand’s, work with speed). However, arguably the most astounding work in this program is being conducted under the topic of bodily regeneration. Scientists have been inspired by previous cases in which children have regrown severed fingers and are currently working to pinpoint the physiological trigger that causes appendage metamorphosis so that it may be stimulated in adults (Gayle, 2012, para. 11). A study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences illustrates the findings of the Wistar Institute which argue that the answer lies in the absence of the p21 gene ( “1 Gene Lost”, 2010). In the case of DNA damage, this particular gene exists in mammals as a defense mechanism against accelerated cell cycle progression, which could lead to cancerous masses.

However, in mice that lack this gene, the Wistar Institute has found that their cells function similarly to embryonic stem cells, forming blastemas.

However, in mice that lack this gene, the Wistar Institute has found that their cells function similarly to embryonic stem cells, forming blastemas. This mass of pluripotent stem cells has the potential to remember tissue origin and regenerate the correlating appendage.  Furthermore, no increase in cancer has been reported in the test subjects due to an observed increase in apoptosis – programmed cell death. The project’s lead scientist, Dr. Ellen Heber-Katz, explains, “The combined effects of an increase in highly regenerative cells and apoptosis may allow the cells of these organisms to divide rapidly without going out of control and becoming cancerous” (Gayle, 2010). This particular study is DARPA’s leading success story within the Engineered Tissue Program. Other studies include one from Arizona State University, which suggests using lizards as a genetic model for human regeneration. (I kid you not, the exact plot line of The Amazing Spiderman is a reality.)

4. Superhuman Apathy: Mind Control

DARPA not only seeks to augment the physical body, but the mind as well. The Human Assisted Neural Devices Program is primarily funding research in optogenetics- a newly evolved, recondite merger between neuroscience and genetics (Miranda, Casebeer, Hein, Judy, Krotkov, Laabs, Manzo, Pankratz, Pratt, Sanchez, Weber, Wheeler, & Lin, 2015). The InBev-Baillet Latour Fund, the administrator for Belgium’s most distinguished international science award, states that the purpose of optogenetics is to “manipulate neuronal activity and to control animal behaviour” (“What is Optogenetics?”, 2010), and The New York Times (2014) expounds this science to be “a technique that allows researchers to turn brain cells on and off with a combination of genetic manipulation and pulses of light.” In common terms, scientists have discovered how to control an individual’s mind in order to manipulate the subject’s demeanor and behavior. Genes that manufacture opsins, light-responsive proteins, are inserted into neurons; when absorbing a photon, these opsins cause their particular neuron to fire, signalling the brain to exhibit a specific type of behavior (Deisseroth, 2010). DARPA intends to use this breakthrough to eliminate a soldier’s empathy for the purpose of intensifying their capacity to “kill without care or remorse, show no fear, fight battle after battle without fatigue and generally behave more like a machine than a man” (Posel, 2013).

DARPA intends to use this breakthrough to eliminate a soldier’s empathy for the purpose of intensifying their capacity to “kill without care or remorse, show no fear, fight battle after battle without fatigue and generally behave more like a machine than a man”

However,the entire program is not dedicated to creating an organic version of Robocop;  Roger Pitman , professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, is conducting experiments with the beta-blocker propranolol, which has indicated the possibility to eradicate disturbing memories (Posel, 2013). If successful, this area of study could alleviate the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However,the Human Assisted Neural Devices Program’s leading bioethicist, Jonathan Moreno of the University of Pennsylvania, has expressed general concerns about DARPA’s applications of these neurological breakthroughs: “The problem is: what else are they blocking when they do this? Do we want a generation of veterans who return without guilt?” (Posel, 2013) Although these scientific pursuits could result in a generation of noble men and women returning home liberated from the effects of PTSD, would they return home without their consciences as well?

DARPA has made great strides in genetic engineering. Though they have yet to create a new species of dinosaurs like the geneticists in Jurassic World, this mad science agency is investigating the possibility of extending humanity’s genetic code, creating a mutant human species. The addition of an artificial 47th chromosome would, in theory, expand the possibilities and decrease the risks of splicing foreign genes into an individual’s DNA, ensuring the future potential to genetically engineer a  universally uniform, perfect human hybrid. However, if this obscure ambition should fail, the supersoldier programs under DARPA’s jurisdiction are not limited to genetic pursuits. Topics of interest seem to be material extrapolated from science fiction- even telepathy (Silent Talk  project) is no longer a myth since the development of brain computer interfaces. These interfaces also legitimize perhaps DARPA’s most imaginative scheme “Avatar”, which seeks to temporarily transplant human minds into surrogate robot counterparts during battle. (Someone at the agency is clearly a major fan of Johnny Depp’s movie Transcendence.) If DARPA should succeed in all of  their supersoldier endeavors, perhaps the new form of human that will have been engineered will be so incredibly enhanced that it is no longer technically identifiable as a human. A new humanoid hybrid, the Indominus Rex of the human race, could be imminent.

Best Case Scenario: The globe cowers at our widely superior and intimidating X-Men military. War is redefined as America flying a bald eagle over enemy nations just to glare at them. The CIA’s only job is to feed the birds, pass out tissues that look like American flags to crying members of ISIS, and redact all Marvel movies as they are now factual operations..

Worst Case Scenario: Anything remotely similar to this.


References:

(2015, June 11). Rapturous Applause. The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2015/06/new-film-jurassic-world
Posel, S. (2013, April 10). DARPA Continues Human Experiments to Create Military Super Soldiers. Investigative Headline News. Retrieved from http://occupycorporatism.com/darpa-continues-human-experiments-to-create-military-super-soldiers/
Seal, C. (2003, August 25). Frankensteins in the Pentagon: DARPA’s Creepy Bioengineering Program. The News Insider. Retrieved from http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article4572.htm
Shachtman, N. (2008, October 7). DARPA: Dolphins Stay Alert for 5 Days Straight; Could Soldiers do the Same?. Wired. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/2008/10/darpas-dolphins/
Castro, J. (2014, April 14). How do Dolphins Sleep?. Live Science. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/44822-how-do-dolphins-sleep.html
Gayle, D. (2012, August 12). Army of the future: Soldiers will be able to run at Olympic speed and won't need food or sleep with gene technology. Daily Mail. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2187276/U-S-Army-Soldiers-able-run-Olympic-speed-wont-need-food-sleep-gene-technology.html
Robson, D. (2008, May 6). Researchers Seek to Demystify the Metabolic Magic of Sled Dogs. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/06/science/06dogs.html?_r=0
(2010, May 15). 1 gene lost = 1 limb regained? Scientists demonstrate mammalian regeneration through single gene deletion. Retrieved from http://phys.org/news/2010-03-gene-lost-limb-regained-scientists.html
Miranda, A. R., Casebeer, W. D., Hein, A. M., Judy, J. W., Krotkov, E. P., Laabs, T. L.,... Lin, G. S. F. (2015, February 9). DARPA-funded Efforts in the Development of Novel Brain–Computer Interface Technologies. Humanity+ Media. Retrieved from http://hplusmagazine.com/2015/02/09/darpa-funded-efforts-development-novel-brain-computer-interface-technologies/
(2015, March 5). What is Optogenetics? Retrieved from http://www.fountia.com/optogenetics/
(2014, April 21). Brain Control in a Flash of Light. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/22/science/mind-control-in-a-flash-of-light.html
Deisseroth, K. (2010, October 20). Optogenetics: Controlling the Brain with Light [Extended Version]. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/optogenetics-controlling/