Biology’s new era: How mRNA and AI are impacting vaccines, medicine, and reproduction

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“This is biology in a new era,” says Michael Specter. “ It's digital information and it moves at the speed of light.” Photo by Shutterstock.

The full history of the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to be written, but one thing is certain — without an effective vaccine, created in a relatively short period of time, millions more people would have died. 

The discovery and speedy manufacture of a COVID-19 vaccine was primarily due to a revolutionary breakthrough involving the use of mRNA — the molecules that carry the genetic information needed to make proteins — and supercomputer machine learning models to engineer the vaccine. They are part of a growing field within synthetic biology that involves writing and rewriting DNA. Due to rapid advancements in tech and A.I., synthetic biology has the potential of revolutionizing not only medicine, but the environment we live in. What used to take a top scientist two years can now be done in seconds. 

Jonathan Bastian talks with Michael Specter, science journalist and author of “Higher Animals: Vaccines, Synthetic Biology, and the Future of Life,” about this new era in science — one in which scientists can make and alter cells digitally, and which is making advances at an incredible speed. 

“mRNA [vaccines] are one of these technologies that you can think about using to send to any sort of place,’ says Specter. “It's sort of like a UPS truck which you can deliver wherever you want in the human body.”

Michael Specter, pictured here, says that, “When we treat cancer with chemotherapy, we basically poison the bad cells and hope we kill more bad cells than good cells in enough of a quantity so that you live and prosper. What we would really love to do is get the bad cells and leave the good cells alone, and this kind of technology begins to let us think that might be possible.”  Photo courtesy of the author.

Technology is also playing a role in significant potential changes developing in reproductive health and fertility. I.V.F (in vitro fertilization) has been around for 40 years, and egg cells have become commodities that are harvested, bought, donated, and preserved. 

In her New Yorker article “The Future of Fertility,” staff writer Emily Witt explains how two Japanese reproductive biologists, Katsuhiko Hayashi and Mitinori Saitou, had used skin cells from a mouse’s tail, reprogrammed them into stem cells, and then turned those stem cells into egg cells. The eggs, once fertilized, were transferred to the uteruses of female mice, who gave birth to ten pups; some of the pups went on to have babies of their own.

“Japanese scientists were able to make an embryo using an egg cell that had been derived from a male mouse. They haven't achieved this in humans,” says Witt, “but the hope is that one day, it will allow same-sex couples to have genetically related children.” 

Witt also discusses the science of extending reproductive longevity. While people are living much longer, by our mid-40s, human eggs are no longer viable for reproduction— a characteristic humans share with only a few other mammals.

“It's a real anomaly,” says Witt, “and evolutionary biologists haven't really come up with a robust and conclusive theory about why.”

Emily Witt, pictured here, says that, “one of the promises of this technology is that at least in theory, a same sex couple would be able to make a sperm and an egg that have their own DNA.” Photo by Noah Kalina.

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Andrea Brody