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Please note this question was originally asked and deleted by the user Era. I've chosen to resurrect the question with slight modifications because I think it is deserving of and will foster interesting answers.

I want to design a post-scarcity biotech utopia with access to futuristic genetic engineering technology. Given that, before I start it's pretty vital that I have a good idea of what they can and can't do with genetic engineering. I need to know in broad terms what's going to be easy for them to develop, what's going to be hard, which capabilities likely to bring unexpected consequences, and which are likely to appear hand in hand. (If they can do A they can do B. If they can't do X they can't do Y.) In other words, I need a suggested roadmap of probable technological stages for genetic engineering similar to what some thinkers have laid out for computing, energy, spaceflight, etc., even as tentative and broadly sketched as it will surely have to be. That way I can set the development of my utopia at a certain level and then extrapolate the consequences from there.


A few examples of significant technological milestones in rough order of presumed complexity might include disease elimination, artificial meat and organs, advanced biomaterials, immortality, augmented intelligence in both humans and animals, the "3D printing" of preprogrammed grown structures, designer plants and animals, microbial computers, mass transformation of ecosystems etc. I'm sure there's plenty of likely developments I haven't even considered, which is part of what prompted the question.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Ash, Aify, Green, jdunlop, Culyx Jul 31 '18 at 17:35

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ So, I understand what you're trying to do and I agree with that, but the question as posed asks for wild, unconstrained speculation. You have a vaguely defined future state, some intermediate technologies and our current technology. If you had a sharply defined future state, asking for intermediate technologies would be a feasible question to answer. As is, it's too broad. $\endgroup$ – Green Jul 31 '18 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Green I think overly broad or opinion based questions are often the result of a lack of background knowledge on the subject. In these cases, an answer explaining this missing background and why the question cannot be answered as is is still helpful to the author of the question and any future passerby with the same question. Simple closure and deletion doesn't help anyone. We shouldn't forget that stack exchange's purpose is to help people with questions, and the rules are intended to help guide us in that. $\endgroup$ – Mike Nichols Jul 31 '18 at 17:37
  • $\begingroup$ In the original question the OP got feedback, and chose to close the question themselves. $\endgroup$ – Tyler S. Loeper Jul 31 '18 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ @TylerS.Loeper Well ... "will" is a bit of a tricky word when the close votes pile on that hard and fast, and give so little room for course correction. Though in retrospect I can see why it was closed, and now plan to break parts I care most about into a few much smaller-scale questions, I'm still only happy to see Mike Nichols take a crack at the framework I was asking for. $\endgroup$ – Era Jul 31 '18 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH Good answers on worldbuilding frequently fail to answer the question as posed and instead explain why it was the wrong question to ask. It can be hard to know whether a question is answerable when not an expert in the subject. That's all I was attempting to do for this question. Era deleted the original question hastily, but I still wanted to help and thought my answer would be useful to Era and any future visitors with a similar question. I don't see the harm in answers that explain why a question can't be answered. That hardly constitutes "discussion" as I see it. It's simply an answer. $\endgroup$ – Mike Nichols Jul 31 '18 at 23:00
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Let’s start with the current state of genetic engineering. Right now we can read the entirety of any genome on Earth. DNA sequencing is cheap and only getting cheaper. Additionally, we have the technology to modify the DNA in almost any way we see fit. Right now this process is tedious, requires expertise and equipment, and is limited in its applications, but with enough resources, we can create any DNA sequence we want. Together these two capabilities theoretically enable us to engineer any genome in any way we please. If we can read and we can write then we can write any novel, code any program, can’t we? Theoretically, there exists a DNA sequence that will give rise to artificial meat, a biological computer, a superior human being. So why can’t we just make these sequences? Because we have absolutely no idea what these sequences are.

The language of DNA is so incredibly complex that we cannot decipher it merely from seeing the sequence. Genomes weren’t designed by engineers with any sense of order. While there are certain patterns and rules in the DNA code they seem to be as frequently broken as they are upheld. The whole system feeds back on itself such that any linear relationship you draw is always a simplification and any change you make will always have a myriad of effects. Right now we can often predict the amino acid sequence of a protein that will be created by a gene, but that doesn’t tell us how that protein will fold, what it will eventually do, wherein the body it will be made, how it will be made, how it will be modified after production and many more unknowns all of which are absolutely critical to understanding what the gene actually does. The current state of most genetic engineering research is using the aforementioned editing tools to change the genetic code in small ways and then observe what happens in the resulting organism. This is a painstaking process with years of work from multiple labs required to get even a rudimentary understanding of a single gene in a single organism.

So, to get to your question, the difficulty of a genetic engineering technology is dependent primarily on how thorough an understanding of the genome it requires. As an example of existing technology, some human diseases such as Cystic Fibrosis are caused by the malfunction of a single gene. Even without an exhaustive understanding of how this gene works, we know all we have to do is repair it in the affected cells. Looking at slightly more advanced theoretical biotech there are several startups trying to use simple organisms like yeast to produce desirable chemicals. The idea here is that since we know the pathways responsible for the production of these compounds we can simply transfer those genes into yeast and they will produce the desired compounds. Of course, it isn’t that simple. You can’t just assume a gene from one organism will function the same way in another. It might, but getting an entire pathway to work is tricky business and relies a lot on persistence and luck rather than an actual understanding of why it is or isn’t working. This is the forefront of genetic engineering right now. We could, of course, attempt more ambitious projects but they would be unlikely to succeed.

It’s difficult to estimate which of your proposed technologies will require a more thorough understanding of the underlying genetics to succeed, but I’ll try to give a few general rules of thumb. Anything that will happen in simple organisms such as bacteria or yeast will likely require less understanding than major projects in mammals or humans. Additionally, projects involving cell cultures of mammals such as lab produced meat will require less understanding than projects involving whole living organisms. Projects involving things we don’t even understand the basics of, let alone the genetics of, such as the human brain or entire ecosystems are likely the furthest reaches.

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