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Genetic Engineering: How Scientists Are Altering DNA to Genetically Engineer New Forms of Life - by Bryan Walsh

Before human beings wrote books or did math or composed music, we made leather. There is evidence hunter-gatherers were wearing clothes crafted from animal skins hundreds of thousands of years ago, while in 2010 archaeologists digging in Armenia found what they believed to be the world’s oldest leather shoe, dating back to 3,500 B.C. (It was about a women’s size 7.) For a species sadly bereft of protective fur, being able to turn the skin of cows or sheep or pigs into clothing with the help of curing and tanning would have been a lifesaving advance, just like other vital discoveries Homo sapiens made over the course of history: the development of grain crops like wheat, the domestication of food animals like chickens, even the all-important art of fermentation. In each case, human beings took something raw from the natural world—a plant, an animal, a microbe—and with the ingenuity that has enabled us to dominate this planet, turned it into a product.

The natural world has its limits, though. Tanned animal skin may make for stylish boots, motorcycle jackets and handbags—supporting an industry worth about $200 billion a year—but it’s still animal skin. That would seem to be an insurmountable problem if you’re one of the hundreds of millions of vegetarians around the world, or even just someone who worries about the environmental impact of raising tens of billions of animals for clothing and food. But it’s not the animal skin that makes leather leather—it’s collagen, a tough, fibrous protein that is a major biological component of animal connective tissue, including skin. If there was a way to manufacture collagen alone, it might be possible to produce leather that even the most dedicated animal-rights activist could love.

That is the promise of synthetic biology, a technology that is poised to change how we feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, fuel ourselves—and possibly even change our very selves. While scientists have for decades been able to practice basic genetic engineering—knocking out a gene or moving one between species—and more recently have learned to rapidly read and sequence genes, now researchers can edit genomes and even write entirely original DNA. That gives scientists incredible control over the fundamental code that drives all life on Earth, from the most basic bacterium to, well, us. “Genetic engineering was like replacing a red light bulb with a green light bulb,” says James Collins, a biological engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of synthetic biology’s early pioneers. “Synthetic biology is introducing novel circuitry that can control how the bulbs turn off and on.”

Read more: New Natural Selection: How Scientists Are Altering DNA to Genetically Engineer New Forms of Life

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