So the talk of the town, biologically speaking anyway, is CRISPR Cas9 (ok dumbbells, here’s the Cliff Notes version). It’s the new way to slice and dice genes. Actually it’s unbelievably amazing, at least to my tiny mind. Now scientists can cut and paste genes like word-processing bread (HUH?). Anyway you get the idea.
Now we are the verge of being able to cure many diseases caused by gene mutations and to use gene therapy for other types. The sky’s the limit; in this case that might well mean cloning, even of humans, but that’s another (scary) story.
And it’s not even as if we’ve hit the end of the road, in fact the opposite. Now we've got a better form of gene editing called CRISPR Magestic. And yes, there’s even more, check out “Beyond CRISPR: A guide to the many other ways to edit a genome”. So a totally new thrill a minute. Don’t say I don’t look after you by giving you incomprehensible buzzwords to impress your friends with.
It’s getting so easy you can get mail-order kits to do your own DNA hacking. Check this if you don’t believe me. How about this for example? “The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to DNA Testing & Who Provides the Best DNA Tests” So it’s already a little bit old hat. Borrrrring – but intriguing.
Hmm, does that mean that in the quite-near future I might be able to edit my own genes, even a lot of my own genome? Yes probably. But that’s still a lot of effort. Is there an easier way to edit my own genes that doesn’t involve messy chemicals and test-tubes? I mean could I edit my own genes just by thinking about it? Sounds like a truly stupid-crazy idea right?
Well here’s the skinny. We’ve known for a long time that we inherit things through inheriting genes, which of course get jumbled up as our parents share their chromosomes and stuff. So you can inherit physical things like their hair color, body types and so on. So far so easy.
But we now know something shocking. It isn’t just physical traits and characteristics that can be inherited. We can also inherit experiences. We do this through the medium of epigenetics (see, another big word to help you impress the boss). We can also pass down a parent’s experiences to future generations. Mmmm, that’s something big to ponder while you’re washing your hair.
Some of you no doubt have heard of the research that shows that Holocaust survivors inherit the trauma passed on to them in their genes from their grandparents. Now we know that memories can be passed on to at least grand-kids and maybe even later generations. This includes experiences too.
Scientists have even worked out the epigenetic mechanism responsible. They even – get this – have discovered the gene that can switch off and on the mechanism that enables this epigenetic transfer of experiences and memories. So we know it’s real.
All of this means that we can inherit not just physical characteristics, but also memories and experiences of our forebears, at least a few generations back.
And maybe not even just a few generations back either. I just read a book about the latest research that uses ancient DNA to track the migrations of both human and pre-human populations up to one million years ago. (Reich, David. “Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past”). There is some evidence that trauma in ancient populations can also be passed down epigenetically also.
Let’s think about this a little. Our genome and life codes are storing much more than our physical history. It’s at least some of our mental, emotional and psychic history too.
Doesn’t this remind you of Carl Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious? After his death the idea came to be regarded as the partly looney idea of the so-called Vienna Society of Psychoanalysis; interesting, exotic but with no practical roots in reality. Now it’s starting to look like he was right on the money.
Our genome encodes unconscious memories and experiences that are at the least collective in nature. Could your genome even store memories and experiences at the level of an individual? It sounds far-fetched, but then so is inheritance of memories and experiences, that we now know to be true.
This has so many interesting and important implications. One is that mental trauma can be passed down for many generations, as with Holocaust survivors and African-Americans, the latter from their history of slavery. And of course not just those populations, maybe many that also experienced collective trauma, descendants of people in the Armenian genocide for example.
It means that, for example, mental health professionals need to be taking into account mental trauma of forbears, because this might be having a real and profound impact on behavior now, for example drugs, suicide, depression. That mental health is also at least partly a collective phenomenon for the group to which a particular mentally ill person belongs.
And it also implies that many types of memories that we presently see as being irrational or meaningless may derive from real-life experiences in a person’s forbears. In that case, isn’t neuroscience going to have to broaden its horizons, maybe drastically?
The title of this blog suggests that we can edit our genes just by thinking. If we regard thinking in this context as actually meaning “directed experiences” all of this could suggest that we can make epigenetic changes to our genome just by directing our experiences to a certain subject or target, and that the changes will occur.
For example, why wouldn’t a religious congregation with certain strong beliefs (say in a certain type of afterlife) be able to epigenetically imprint their shared visceral experience in this belief (joy, ecstasy) on their collective genome? Isn’t that an implied promise of many religions anyhow?
Could we soon be getting mail-order kits for gene editing via epigenetic experience transmission in addition to DIY CRISPR? Was this the true aim of many past, present and maybe future religions? Mass marketing of their religious vision via descendants rather than just the current congregations. Is Christianity the best extant example? Could Christianity actually exist in many people epigenetically?
And not just religions. These discoveries hint at new ways of human re-engineering, right down from things like hair color to things like your state of mind and the memories you would like to be born with.
CRISPR is truly only the very, very beginning.