Tattoos and body piercings have become strangely commonplace over the past few decades. Back in the 80s, this sort of body modification generally meant you were either a military veteran or hardcore into the drug scene. Today, it’s common to see sixteen-year-olds who’ve never seen anything more traumatic than high school with multiple square feet of ink and enough metal in their face to solder together a circuit board.
Body modification has grown far beyond group identification and teen angst, and well into the mainstream. Nobody bats an eye over breast implants or botox injections. And for those not in the know, “botox” is short for botulinum toxin, a bacterial neurotoxin roughly 2800 times more lethal than cyanide. People have very small quantities of it injected into their face to paralyze their facial muscles to reduce wrinkles. That’s more hardcore than half the body mods in your average Shadowrun street samurai.
Think about that. Soccer moms are paying for neurotoxin injections and implants. Body modification isn’t some esoteric cyberpunk thing. It’s utterly mainstream.
In fact, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, over 18 million cosmetic body modifications were performed in the US in 2018 alone. To put that into context, the entire US population combined is only about 330 million. Sure, quite a few of those were the same people having multiple surgeries, but clearly a couple percent of the American population is paying for body modification annually, and that’s not even counting casual procedures like tattoos and piercings.
Now let’s talk about CRISPR-Cas/9.
First, a quick ELI5:
You know how when you get sick, your body “learns” to recognize whatever’s making you sick, and then it doesn’t make you sick anymore? Single-cell organisms have a similar system, called CRISPR. It works by learning DNA sequences from disease-causing invaders like viruses, stashing those memories somewhere, and then sending out proteins on seek-and-destroy missions looking for matches. If it finds a DNA match in a virus, that virus gets cut to pieces. If it finds a match in its own DNA, the viral DNA is chopped out.
Even though that’s how bacteria defend themselves from viruses, it works fairly well with humans too, and by giving the proteins specific DNA sequences to look for, they can be used to cut pieces out whether or not they come from a virus. Kind of like how a pair of scissors might be intended to be used to cut paper, but they work perfectly well to cut open a package of meat in your kitchen. CRISPR-Cas/9 is a natural immune-system tool for removing viral DNA, but it doesn’t care very much what it’s used on. Feed it a gene sequence that’s not from a virus, and it will remove it just as well as if it were. And while it’s more difficult to do, with various techniques gene sequences can not only be removed, but inserted as well.
Which brings us to Lulu and Nana.
In October of 2018, Chinese biophysics researcher He Jiankui used CRISPR-Cas/9 to genetically modify a pair of human embryos in an attempt to render them immune to certain strains of HIV. But unlike previous genetic experiments of this sort, those embryos were re-inserted into the donor mothers, who then gave birth to two very much healthy and alive babies. Unsurprisingly, this happened in Shenzhen China, a cyberpunk megatopia-in-the-making we’ve written about before. Either way, genetically altered humans are now living among us. The genie is out of the bottle, and there’s no putting it back.
Incidentally, you and anybody else who wants one can buy DIY CRISPR kits right now for under $200. It doesn’t take very much imagination to envision the biohacker community, the same people who are right now slashing open their own fingers to stick magnets inside, applying genetic tools to give themselves superpowers more interesting than being able to pick up bottle caps with a touch.
Of course, there will be a lot of trial and error involved. It’s been reported that the alterations made to Lulu and Nana to make them resist HIV likely also had as-of-yet undetermined effects on their brains, because the relevant immune cell protein is also involved in memory and neuron plasticity. If they’re lucky, they’ll become geniuses. If not, they may end up with Alzheimer’s before they’re out of diapers.
But some people will be willing to take that risk. And somebody only has to figure out once how to give humans whatever superpower we happen to want. It wasn’t very difficult to make mice glow like jellyfish. It probably wouldn’t be very difficult to make humans able to regenerate lost limbs like starfish, or to see in the dark like cats.
If you imagine a future in which only the rich are going to gene clinics to pay for million dollar babies, that might not be how it plays out. Pharmaceuticals are (theoretically) expensive because of all the time and expense involved with their research. If a few hundred biohackers are willing to take a chance and then upload their results, within the next decade or two you might be typing whatever body modification you want into a search box, downloading gene sequence descriptors for it from some random torrent site, and then injecting yourself via an over-the-counter kit