biotechnologies

Tomorrow, the living will be programmed... like an iPhone!

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Biotechnology is on the rise and now represents a major economic and societal challenge. However, far from science fiction stories and faced with a succession of "feats", they are still poorly understood and raise many questions. The fact remains that the top start has been made and that we will have to buckle down in the face of a flood of applications of all kinds.
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Ehat if tomorrow, the Avenue des Champs Elysées shone with a thousand lights under the spotlights... of fluorescent trees? A crazy idea at first glance, but not so much any more if we take a closer look at the already well-advanced research of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The American researchers have in fact taken up work initiated by two students who, by crossing the DNA of an aquatic bacterium with that of a terrestrial plant shoot, gave birth to a tree stump... naturally luminous. Behind, the ecological consequences would be extraordinary, especially in terms of energy savings.

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And this is one biotech project among many, many others! The field of health, the main one concerned, is multiplying research linked to the fight against cancer or the slowing down of ageing as well as many associated pathologies. Agriculture, industry, marine biodiversity and environmental protection are also very much focused on this field of the future. All the more so as in the field of manipulation of living organisms: epigenetics, pluripotent stem cells, somatic cloning, etc., there are many advances and research is moving fast. Very fast. Especially since the arrival of Crispr/Cas9, the now famous "DNA scissors" capable of modifying all types of genomes at a lower cost. The corollary of all this is a redistribution of the cards in terms of skills.
 

The first X-mens in biohackers

Indeed, until now reserved for biologists, the manipulation of living organisms will open up to other professions. No more pipettes and time for programming! We can already anticipate a diversification of developers in the life sciences sector, as has happened on the web and then in mobile applications. Major technological barriers have been overcome and, as soon as complete programming environments appear, the hitherto dormant movement of biohackers will see new followers emerge. Experiments will then be launched everywhere, it is no longer science fiction. Internet is already full of video tutorials featuring biohackers, in their kitchen or garage, detailing each step of manipulation to magnetize their fingers, become phosphorescent, etc.. The American Josiah Zayner recently announced that he had modified the musculature of his arm and tried to market his product in the form of a "kit". Will we thus see the first mutants in a few years' time, in the image of superheroes? Or the return of prehistoric animals, like the controversial work of Harvard researcher George Church, whose project is to recreate the woolly mammoth that disappeared 4,000 years ago?
 
To date, the promises announced by the various research projects in progress leave us wondering: genetically modified men who, from birth, are endowed with genes for disease resistance and even increased IQ; artificial blood created from stem cells; artificial uterus with gestation outside the womb from simple skin cells and without sperm or eggs (a pregnancy without an umbilical cord would, for example, make it possible to free oneself from the 250 or so endocrine disruptors that can be found there), etc. In short, there are many examples, but they also raise real questions: overpopulation, risk of impoverishment of the species, appearance of a new form of eugenics and disruption, even disruption of ecosystems.
 

A revolution launched that is as risky as it is promising

What to think, however, of this recent discovery in the United States, in Indiana, which reported that following a genetic mutation, the Amish saw their life expectancy extended by ... 10 years! If this genetic mutation were offered on the comfort health market tomorrow, wouldn't we be tempted?
We must certainly seek to support the biotechnological movement from now on, or else delay it in order to give ourselves the means to move forward under the best possible conditions. Entering into a dynamic of Manichean opposition would lead to nothing and would not prevent those who wish to do so from practising what is now called cell tourism.
 It is best to avoid entering into a logic of pros and cons. The idea is that everyone should be able to find his or her own side, whether it be for the treatment of pathologies, for comfort or for leisure, but in a context where freedoms are properly delimited. Tomorrow's bioethics will require fundamental rules of respect and protection to be laid down. On the one hand, to unleash and frame innovation and, on the other, to ensure that exemplary sanctions are applied in the event of non-compliance. In this respect, the "Etats Généraux de la Bioéthique", which began on 18 January and is scheduled to result in a new law by the autumn, is a step in the right direction. France is already falling behind its neighbours. They are innovating while we are in the forbidden. China, for its part, free of all regulatory constraints and cultural barriers, is bringing biotechnology into the present and is already several steps ahead of everyone else. On the European side, the risk is that we may lose our ability to become autonomous on these issues and capture market share.
 
Mickaël Réaultfounding director of Sindup
 

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