What if people could just survive on sunlight like plants?
The admittedly outlandish question occurred to me after reading about how climate change will exacerbate drought, flooding, and worldwide food shortages. Many of these problems could be eliminated if human photosynthesis were possible. Had anyone ever tried it?
Extreme space travel exists at an ethically unique spot that makes human experimentation much more palatable.
I emailed Sidney Pierce, professor emeritus in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of South Florida, who studies a type of sea slug, Elysia chlorotica, that eats photosynthetic algae, incorporating the algae's key cell structure into itself. It's still a mystery how exactly a slug can operate the part of the cell that converts sunlight into energy, which requires proteins made by genes to function, but the upshot is that the slugs can (and do) live on sunlight in-between feedings.
Pierce says he gets questions about human photosynthesis a couple of times a year, but it almost certainly wouldn't be worth it to try to develop the process in a human. "A high-metabolic rate, large animal like a human could probably not survive on photosynthesis," he wrote to me in an email. "The main reason is a lack of surface area. They would either have to grow leaves or pull a trailer covered with them."
In short: Plants have already exploited the best tricks for subsisting on photosynthesis, and unless we want to look and act like plants, we won't have much success ourselves. Not that it stopped Pierce from trying to develop human photosynthesis technology anyway: "I even tried to sell it to the Navy back in the day," he told me. "Imagine photosynthetic SEALS."
It turns out, however, that while no one is actively trying to create photosynthetic humans, scientists are considering the ways humans might need to change to adapt to future environments, either here on the rapidly changing Earth or on another planet. Rice University biologist Scott Solomon has written an entire book, Future Humans, in which he explores the environmental pressures that are likely to influence human evolution from this point forward. On Earth, Solomon says, infectious disease will remain a major driver of change. As for Mars, the big two are lower gravity and radiation, the latter of which bombards the Martian surface constantly because the planet has no magnetosphere.
Although he considers this example "pretty out there," Solomon says one possible solution to Mars' magnetic assault could leave humans not photosynthetic green, but orange, thanks to pigments called carotenoids that are responsible for the bright hues of pumpkins and carrots.
"Carotenoids protect against radiation," he says. "Usually only plants and microbes can produce carotenoids, but there's at least one kind of insect, a particular type of aphid, that somehow acquired the gene for making carotenoids from a fungus. We don't exactly know how that happened, but now they're orange... I view that as an example of, hey, maybe humans on Mars will evolve new kinds of pigmentation that will protect us from the radiation there."
We could wait for an orange human-producing genetic variation to occur naturally, or with new gene editing techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9, we could just directly give astronauts genetic advantages such as carotenoid-producing skin. This may not be as far-off as it sounds: Extreme space travel exists at an ethically unique spot that makes human experimentation much more palatable. If an astronaut already plans to subject herself to the enormous experiment of traveling to, and maybe living out her days on, a dangerous and faraway planet, do we have any obligation to provide all the protection we can?
Probably the most vocal person trying to figure out what genetic protections might help astronauts is Cornell geneticist Chris Mason. His lab has outlined a 10-phase, 500-year plan for human survival, starting with the comparatively modest goal of establishing which human genes are not amenable to change and should be marked with a "Do not disturb" sign.
To be clear, Mason is not actually modifying human beings. Instead, his lab has studied genes in radiation-resistant bacteria, such as the Deinococcus genus. They've expressed proteins called DSUP from tardigrades, tiny water bears that can survive in space, in human cells. They've looked into p53, a gene that is overexpressed in elephants and seems to protect them from cancer. They also developed a protocol to work on the NASA twin study comparing astronauts Scott Kelly, who spent a year aboard the International Space Station, and his brother Mark, who did not, to find out what effects space tends to have on genes in the first place.
In a talk he gave in December, Mason reported that 8.7 percent of Scott Kelly's genes—mostly those associated with immune function, DNA repair, and bone formation—did not return to normal after the astronaut had been home for six months. "Some of these space genes, we could engineer them, activate them, have them be hyperactive when you go to space," he said in that same talk. "When we think about having the hubris to go to a faraway planet...it seems like an almost impossible idea….but I really like people and I want us to survive for a long time, and this is the first step on the stairwell to survive out of the solar system."
What is the most important ability we could give our future selves through science?
There are others performing studies to figure out what capabilities we might bestow on the future-proof superhuman, but none of them are quite as extreme as photosynthesis (although all of them are useful). At Harvard, geneticist George Church wants to engineer cells to be resistant to viruses, such as the common cold and HIV. At Columbia, synthetic biologist Harris Wang is addressing self-sufficient humans more directly—trying to spur kidney cells to produce amino acids that are normally only available from diet.
But perhaps Future Humans author Scott Solomon has the most radical idea. I asked him a version of the classic What would be your superhero power? question: What does he see as the most important ability we could give our future selves through science?
"The empathy gene," he said. "The ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and see the world as they see it. I think it would solve a lot of our problems."
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.