Modification revolution

Science has made a new genetic revolution possible

Now let it flourish

THANKS TO GREAT strides in fundamental research, biology is becoming ever more programmable. Two recent scientific advances show just how powerful the possibilities could be. The genetic modification of plants is allowing the mechanism of photosynthesis to be tinkered with, as research published in Science on August 18th sets out. This could lead to dramatic improvements in the productivity of plants, and eventually to a second green revolution. Tweaking the genes of people who suffer from fatal incurable diseases, meanwhile, has also had remarkable results. A series of genetic therapies has arrived, or is arriving, in clinics to treat blood cancers, spinal muscular atrophy, haemophilia and sickle-cell disease. The task now is to spread these gains far and wide.

The consequences of both advances could be momentous. The genetic modification of crops promises cheaper, more nutritious and more climate-resilient food for a hungry planet. Genetic therapies offer the hope of curing devastating diseases. They also allow for one-time treatments that can be transported to the four corners of the Earth, bringing years, decades or a lifetime of benefits to the seriously and incurably ill. Imagine a cure for AIDS or sickle-cell disease that could be taken to the continent of Africa or across the Middle East. The accompanying benefits would be similar to the eradication of smallpox.

This tantalising promise has been made possible by a prodigious investment in fundamental research over the years. Basic knowledge of genetics and the functions and structures of…