The discovery of the germ theory in the mid-nineteenth century led to a huge increase in life expectancy. The simple act of hygiene - washing hands, brushing teeth, sanitation etc. - was the advent of human biotechnology. That simple discovery enhanced the human lifespan from 30-50 years to 60-80 years. Some of the first couples to celebrate their 50th anniversary were documented in just 1939. Prior to that, a 50th anniversary was akin to immortality. We as a species have jumped light years in biotechnology in under 200 years.
It’s said that a revolutionary advance happens once in a generation. Pharmaceuticals were the advance in the last generation. The Genome Project and the resulting mapping of human DNA in 2000 was the advance of our generation. Mapping and understanding how our genes interact with each other is a massive accomplishment that carries powerful implications for human life.
An entertaining and informative BBC series, Visions of the Future hosted by Michio Kaku explores the vast body of current technology and research that is dramatically extending human life expectancy.
A recent development that illustrates the potential power of these new technologies is Professor Richard Jorgensen’s experiment with purple flowers. He decided to double the “purple gene” in the plant in order to create a darker shade of purple. As the modified flower grew, something happened to everyone’s surprise - the flower grew white, without color. What happened? It turned out that the cells in the plant were able to recognize that a modified gene had been introduced. As a result, a safety mechanism that allows cells to “turn off” specific genes was deployed. The implications of this biological process are enormous. Not far in the future, it’s plausible that diseases could simply be turned “off” using a similar process. A development of this magnitude could put an end to human disease. There’s a real possibility that in the future there will be a whole generation that views disease as a historical fact in human history - not unlike our view of a human population who didn’t know and understand the benefits of simple hygiene such as washing hands or brushing teeth.