The COVID vaccine, made possible by breakthrough mRNA technology, it's just the first example of an ongoing scientific revolution.
The New Yorker writer, Michael Specter, is author of a new audiobook called "higher animals, vaccines, synthetic biology, in the future half-life."
It comes out tomorrow and he is speaking to Walter Isaacson about the opportunities and risks of the latest scientific breakthroughs.
Walter: Thank you.
Michael Specter, welcome to the show.
Michael: I'm pleased to be here, Walter.
Walter: The COVID vaccines we got expose us to the wonderful molecule of S under RNA.
In your new audiobook coming, up this week you explained that mRNA will be part of something larger, a great revolution in biotechnology.
First of all, explain what messenger RNA is, and what it does in ourselves.
Michael: Messenger RNA is basically the thing that fairies blueprints around the body.
It sends information around the body.
And it is able, with the vaccines that we have all come to know, it is able to build blueprints that tell our body how to form the antibodies that we need to protect ourselves against the virus.
But it can do a lot of other things with other viruses and other substances.
Walter: In other words, it basically says, build a protein.
In the case of the coronavirus, it says build that spike protein.
It gives us immunity.
As a vaccine, it kicks up our immune system.
Is that right?
It is radically different than anything we have had before, because we used to basically, and we still to some degree do, operate on the principle that you take a bit of whatever is ailing the people, you take that virus, a dead version, or in activated version, you shoot a little bit into your body, that activates your antibodies.
And that protects you.
That usually works.
It does not always work.
But this is quicker, it is easier, more specific, and we can alter it the same way we could alter words on the page.
It is just very easy to use.
Walter: When you say we get altered, it means we could create any other protein for any other virus?
What else can we use it for?
Michael: We are getting to the point, and a lot of this book is about the fact that synthetic biology is getting to the point where we are able to master some things that will allow us to think about making vaccines for terrible diseases.
It will also make it possible for people to do things we don't want them to do if we are not careful.
Because it is getting easier.
It's like, after World War II, a computer took up an entire room.
And now the computer on my watch is more powerful than the one that sent astronauts to the moon.
That is sort of what is happening in biology.
We are moving into a landscape of personal biology where people will be able to make, assemble, print, and produce cells and organisms and alter them.
And that is both really exciting, and also kind of scary.
Walter: You call the audiobook coming out this week "higher animals.
What do you mean by that?
Michael: What I mean by that is us.
A lot of people think of higher animals, it means we will create some super organism.
He may be able to do that and not as long from now which you might think.
But I am referring to humans.
We are becoming higher animals in the sense that we are able to control biology in ways that we have never done in 4 billion years.
We are able to make things, alter things.
The idea that the COVID vaccine was basically assembled in a couple days once it was downloaded from the Internet.
By the way, those words ought to be profound.
We downloaded the blueprints from the Internet.
When you can do that, you can do a lot of things.
It means biology moves at the speed of light now.
Walter: One of the things I learned by listening to this audiobook was that it is much bigger than vaccines.
For one thing, we can use it to make chemicals.
We can grow chemicals instead of produce them.
We ought to be able to use it to work with environmental species, a species that are endangered.
I have one chapter in the book about the black footed ferret.
That is the most endangered species in North America, and it is endangered because it gets the plague.
The plague is something we have a vaccine for, but you cannot run around the entire west of the United States vaccinating every single black footed ferret.
What you can do is you can take that vaccine and embed it into the germ cells of an individual, who will then give birth to other black footed ferrets.
And those will be basically born with a heritable vaccine.
And people are working on that now.
Walter: And you make it sound like this is a revolution that was suddenly entering.
I think we are suddenly entering two revolutions.
One of artificial intelligence, especially with g chatbt.
And then molecules being the new microchips where we can reprogram our body to do think.
First of all, it seems strange to me that we are in a revolution, and we actually know it.
I don't think anyone woke up one day in 1760 and said, oh my God, the Industrial Revolution has just begun.
In the past two or three months, I've thought, my God, we are hitting two revolution.
Michael: I completely agree with you on both counts.
The reason we see these revolutions, whereas in the past, they have only been evident when we look backwards, is because when things move at exponential speed, it is difficult not to notice them.
The things that are happening in biology are moving so fast, the things happening with AI and biology combined are moving so fast, that it is really difficult not to notice them.
And notice their impact.
Walter: One of the characters in your book, Kevin, who I know you have written about when you are writing for the New Yorker, and now I think you are teaching with it at M.I.T., talks about the ethical implications we are going to face.
I know you teach a course on that.
Tell me about those.
Michael: The question is what do we want to do with this power we have to be able to alter the basic elemental structure of genes, of humans and other animals?
To be careful about how we use this power.
I don't know of a technology in human history that we discovered and then said, we are not going to use it.
I would like to be told of one, but I have not heard of one.
I have to assume that we are going to edit genes and genes that people can inherit, and we will edit genes of species and other things.
And we need to be really thoughtful and maybe for the first time say, should we be doing this particular thing?
Sure, it would be great to get rid of diabetes.
But are we going to edit someone so they can be an inch and a half taller in the next generation?
We have to have those conversations.
And they are not conversations that we are used to having or have ever really had.
Walter: You talk about the gene editing revolution, and that uses something you have written about extensively, which is crisper.
A way to easily edit our genes.
Which also has RNA at its core.
It has a guide RNA that edits DNA.
In the messenger RNA helps us build protein.
Tell me how those things are related.
Michael: I think of CRISPR as a prominent tool in the toolbox.
There are other tools coming along.
There is something called base editing, which you are aware of.
That are kind of refined versions of the ability to change DNA around.
But when you take the ability that CRISPR gives you to change DNA, and you pair it with something like eight gene drive, which allows a genetic predisposition to be forced through generations, you can basically change the gene pool in whatever way you want.
Walter: You did that about mosquitoes, right?
Explain a concrete example of that.
Michael: Malaria kills millions of people, it is one of the worst things on earth.
If we could figure out a way to get rid of enough of these mosquitoes, just those mosquitoes that are here to carry malaria, that would be a big deal.
Researchers have figured out a way.
They have taken genes and they have changed the genetic structure of those insects so that when they lay their eggs, the eggs die.
They don't continue living.
What you eventually have is a gene pool that disappears.
This has not happened in real life yet, because as with all of these technological advances, it is really going to be up to the people to decide whether they want to deploy this.
There are a lot of questions.
There is a long history of humans introducing species, changing species, and doing bad things.
And who would decide?
The African people, the people this affects.
Cannot fly down to Mali and release 300 million genetically altered mosquitoes and say, hey guys, congratulate us.
This has to be something they want to do.
And also, mosquitoes might -- that might be something people in Mali want to do.
But mosquitoes don't stop at the border.
They don't say, Molly said OK, but Central African Republic does not think so.
It is going to have to be something that is broadly accepted by the population.
I can tell you, that is a hard thing to get people to agree to.
Walter: What about broad acceptance of inheritable gene editing?
Michael: I do something we are going to have to face soon.
I have a feeling that if you went around to people and said, we have a way to get rid of diabetes, sickle-cell, things that really are devastating and cause endless harm to people, most people would say that would be great, let's get rid of that.
The question then becomes, are there other consequences of that?
What if we can edit a different gene to have a different result?
And maybe there are IQ points involved for height or abilities.
It becomes, I hate to use the phrase a slippery slope, but if it was ever apt, it is here.
It is going to be really difficult to decide when those powerful tools should be used on when they should not.
What we are went to have to decide.
Walter: We talked about two revolutions happening almost simultaneously.
You can look out the window and watch them happening.
One being the synthetic biology revolution, whatever you want to call it.
The other being artificial intelligence, and the chat bots that have come along.
How do those intersect?
Michael: Really powerfully, I will tell you why.
There is a problem called protein faulting carried proteins fall in weird ways that look like calls of yarn or spaghetti.
And they do this trillions of times a second.
And when you are trying to design a drug, you need to interact with the three-dimensional space those proteins represent.
And it has been almost impossible to figure out how proteins fold.
What you have had to do until recently is spend about a year and $80,000 using x-ray crystallography and take endless pictures from around a protein.
It is very cumbersome, expensive, and difficult.
The artificial intelligence company deep mind, which is owned by Google, decided they would try to solve this problem a couple years ago.
And people thought it was kind of crazy, until last year when they announced that they had solved the problem.
And people will quibble with the word solve, but deep mind has published 200 million proteins now, and people are using those proteins to try to make cancer drugs, other types of drugs, other solutions to diseases.
It is a radical AI/biology revolutionary step.
And I once said to a guy, how do you know when you set these programs and they solve them that they really solved them?
And he showed me two slides.
He said, we actually solved this protein but we did not sell them, we spent $80,000 in a year to solve it.
He put the slides up and they were debt -- they were identical to the atom.
This is an example of biology really being exciting when you compare it -- when you combine it with artificial intelligence.
I have to say, you don't have to have a crazy science-fiction imagination to see ways where this could go wrong.
Walter: Tell me how it could go wrong.
Michael: If you have the power to use AI to make very complicated biological solutions to problems, you have the power to use AI to make very complicated problems that don't easily get resolved.
Walter: You mean new bio weapons or new ways to design humans?
Michael: Mostly talking about bio weapons or altering the structure of viruses, so that they are impermeable to the vaccines that we have now.
Walter: It would be an offense and defense.
Somebody would create new vaccines, are we going to be able to find a way of fighting viruses that will make us be able to stop these new ones?
Michael: I think there are ways.
You mentioned Kevin as pop.
We should be testing the waste water every airport in this country and every major airport in the world, because if something is deadly, if it is man-made or even just natural, it is going to exponentially grow.
There are other solutions.
We can figure out ways to a little bit better, do a better job of regulating how we allow people to print to DNA, make DNA.
All of that is free.
If I want to go print the sequence of any virus you name, I can do it.
No one is going to stop me.
It is not illegal it is kind of immoral.
But it is not illegal.
In the academic world, it is encouraged.
Walter: One of the themes you have had with 30 years of your writing has been antiscience, signs to nihilism, and to some extent, I think, it connects into sort of a Lot I to his him about technology in general.
Do you think we have gotten into a worse situation with science denialism?
Michael: I'm sorry to say that I think we have.
I think part of that problem is people don't accept authority.
And there are lots of reasons.
Some legitimate, why they wouldn't.
There are lots of reasons, some legitimate, why they are unexcited by new technologies.
In the end, even with the COVID vaccines, there have been plenty of people who will not get them, and plenty of people who say crazy things.
But 14 billion of those vaccines have gone into human arms in the last three years.
Some people are perfectly willing to take something that was made synthetically in a lab and put it in their body to keep from dying.
Walter: Let me read you a cool sentence from your audiobook, and I want you to expound on it a bit.
You write "anyone who has listened to this book might have sensed some of my ambivalence about where synthetic biology could lead us.
Don't get me wrong, I'm excited and optimistic about our prospects.
But we are edging into a world which we are not wholly prepared."
Michael: Look, I don't think it is a secret that we are not very good at solving global problems.
Climate change has been going on for a while.
The problem here is that things move exponentially, they move early fast, and I don't know what a government body is going to sit down and say, here is how we regulate synthetic biology.
Here is how we combine artificial intelligence and synthetic biology so we do wonderful things for humanity, which we definitely will do, without doing terrible things for humanity.
Walter: Let me add another sentence you wrote because I want you to end on a more hopeful note which is "and yet, I'm going to bet on humanity and the future of biology."
Michael: Because I think we are a resourceful group, I think humans are resourceful and they want to prosper.
As I just said with the COVID vaccines, you can say a lot of bad things about the reaction.
But ultimately, it was magical we produced a vaccine for times faster than we ever have before, we saved millions of lives, and this was just the first swing at a whole new revolutionary technology.
And I think we will get better.
As we get better, people will appreciate what it can do for them.
That is why I'm optimistic.
Ultimately, I think people are not idiots.
I think they are worried.
We need to figure out a way to help them not worry as much.
Walter: Michael Specter, thank you for joining us.
Michael: Thank you so much for having me.
It's a pleasure.