Biotechnology has produced designer medicines, engineered foods and the promise of custom- made kids. Now is a good time to reflect on a few biological truths -- before someone changes them
There's a new company north of Rockville, headquartered near the intersection of West Gude Drive and Highway 355. The company's name is out front by the circular driveway: Celera. You see companies like this all the time in the Washington suburbs. Years can pass and you might never learn what goes on inside. A while back there was a different company here, called Vitro. Before that, there was woods. A well-trod Indian trail ran through this area. The Senecas and Susquehannocks came from the north, to hunt and fish along the big river to the south. In those days, a resource was a fish, a deer, a person's courage. There was every reason to think that it would always be so. The world had cycles and rhythms, but it did not fundamentally change. Soon there came Indians from the south, the Piscataways. They were fleeing the encroachment of European settlers, who called this part of the world Maryland. Land developers began paying Lord Baltimore for "patents" of land. A man named Henry Wright Crabb took out a patent near the old Indian trail and called his parcel Valentine's Garden. His tobacco farm eventually had more than 20 slaves. New resources had been defined: fertile land, enslaved men and women. But then the land became exhausted, the nutrients depleted. In the 1840s, the Crabb family and other landowners began to import Peruvian guano to put on their fields. The guano arrived by rail. Resources: coal, railroads, bird crap. Then came chemical fertilizer, gasoline, electricity, the car, the combine. Farms flourished. The trail had long since given way to a road, the Frederick Road, also known today as Highway 355, which is also, a few miles to the south, the Rockville Pike. The distant city of Washington raced northward. One of the last of the big farms, the King Farm, has been cleared for a sprawling new residential and commercial development. The housing will provide shelter for thousands of people seeking jobs in the area's high-tech industry. Resource: the computer chip. Which brings up Celera. The word comes from "celerity," meaning quickness of action. Celera is just a tree line removed from the King Farm and promises to have a stunning impact on the world. It will use powerful new computerized equipment to "sequence" the human genetic code. Celera will try to scoop the rest of the scientific world and find the essential text, the blueprint, for the construction of a human being. It's profitable information, potentially. When the company finds an important bit of the genetic code, it will seek to patent it. Resource: the gene. That may seem like a roundabout way of introducing the topic of biotechnology. But it's important to keep the larger context in mind, which is that the world is in the process of a radical makeover, driven by technology, ingenuity and greed. This change is not some trivial, cosmetic gloss. The past is being obliterated to make way for the future. It has been a slow-motion obliteration. The future arrives in dribs and drabs. Futurist Joe Coates ventures that people today would have to go back in time to about 1870 to find themselves strangers in a strange land. And even then, they'd find one thing unchanged: human nature. It's been a constant, an anchor in our lives. People still do the same silly and foolish and crazy things today that they did 500 years ago, only they're more likely to do it while driving an automobile or telephoning a congressman. But now comes biotechnology. Biotech could change everything. This is not a new communications gizmo or a zippier way to launch a rocket. What makes biotech different from other new technologies is that it promises to tinker with human beings at the root of their existence. It could change the way people fundamentally are, cell by cell. It alters the instructions by which living things are made. Michio Kaku, in his book Visions, says we are making a fundamental transition here, from "unraveling the secrets of Nature to becoming masters of Nature." That's the kind of language being thrown around these days. Barbara Marx Hubbard, a futurist with a spiritual bent, says this is as important a moment as the origin of life itself 4 billion years ago. "Human intention is entering matter," she said recently by phone from a beach somewhere in California. "It means that instead of evolution working by natural and unconscious selection, evolution is beginning to happen through conscious choice." So you can see this is big stuff. Already, biotech has produced human growth hormone for stunted kids, and mass-produced insulin for diabetics. It has played a role in the development of anti-AIDS drugs, as well as the popular antidepressant Prozac. Genetic science has nabbed Thomas Jefferson for siring a child with his slave Sally Hemings -- something no muckraker had ever managed to prove. Hardly a day goes by when there isn't a breaking news story from the biological frontier. Researchers recently announced that they'd isolated the embryonic "stem cells" that can eventually develop into specific organs, like the heart and the brain. Someday doctors may be able to inject vibrant new heart cells into people with bad hearts, and brain cells into people with brain diseases. You won't just feel like new, you'll be new. The cloning of mammals has become a reality. They've cloned a sheep, and they've cloned a mouse, and a doctor vows he'll clone humans (though it turns out he doesn't have the foggiest idea how). You've heard about parents who can choose the sex of their child by picking among a batch of embryos. You've also probably heard about the embryo, implanted a woman's womb, that has three genetic parents. (Heather has two mommies!) You might not have heard this one: Scientists have grown a human ear from scratch -- inside a mouse. Where does it go from here? Deep into Weirdsville. NASA engineers are talking about building spaceships that have living skin that can repair itself after collisions with tiny meteors. Closer to home, and far in the future, you may live in a house with living parts. Your house might be self-cleaning -- just like an organism. A scientist at Johns Hopkins University has grown rat neurons -- brain cells -- in a pattern on a silicon chip. The visionaries say that someday people will be able to transfer their minds to a computer, literally downloading everything in their head. Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Biotech Century, has applied for a patent on all half-human, half-animal hybrids, or "chimeras." They don't exist yet, but Rifkin -- an intelligent alarmist with a knack for conjuring dire scenarios -- wants to own the idea as a preventive measure. "A human chimpanzee can be accomplished tomorrow morning, if anyone wants to do it," he contends. There is widespread talk of "designer" babies. Having a kid will supposedly be like picking out a car -- you want a sports model, or something safer and more dependable? You want a kid who is a whiz at calculus? Or would a kid with a fabulous turnaround jump shot be your preference? Can we throw in some perfect dimples? Rifkin says, "For the first time in history a child is not a blessing, a child is an engineering proposition." The biologist Lee Silver, author of Remaking Eden, predicts that biotechnology will give rise to an elite class of genetically altered individuals. In several centuries, the human race may be divided into two distinct species, the "Naturals" and what he calls the "GenRich." Another possible development: We'll stop dying. "Life spans are not inherently finite," says anti-aging researcher Michael Rose of the University of California at Irvine. He's learned how to double the life spans of fruit flies. He thinks his techniques could someday be applied to humans. "I'm talking about being able to play tennis when you're 98 years old," Rose says. The optimistic futurists don't stop there. "The first immortal human beings are probably living among us today," writes Ben Bova in his book Immortality. Ed Cornish of the World Future Society mentions, just offhand, the possibility that someday people will be able to have Elvis's baby. Elvis, though presumed dead, still exists in physical form in a grave at Graceland. That means his genetic code, his DNA, can be sampled and, presumably (okay, so here's the big leap), used to create sperm or somehow generate a genetic donor cell. For that matter, he could be cloned. "How would you like a child by Abraham Lincoln?" Cornish says. "I think that may be possible. There may be remains of Lincoln that could be used." Eventually, Cornish says, it could be possible to decide what kind of body you want to have. People might want wings. They might want six arms, like a Hindu goddess. You can't help but run the scenario to its logical conclusion. A craze could break out among teenagers -- everyone has to have six arms or else they'll feel left out, like some kind of freak. And if the Russians start having eight or 12 or 20 arms, then the whole world could break out in a . . . well, it must be said -- in an arms race. Now let's stop and take a deep breath. Is any of this actually possible, let alone likely? Couldn't there be an element of hysteria here? (And if so, is hysteria a genetically driven trait or simply a subconscious response to cultural and environmental stimuli?) This would be a good time to reflect upon a few biological truths, a few facts about what makes us what we are. Before someone goes and changes them. DNA is not something you can tweeze off your skin, but you can find it in a lab. A man named Mike Erdos showed me some at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. The DNA was at the bottom of a tiny tube. "That's actually me," he said. "That's me, Mike Erdos." His DNA was clear, mixed with water. He added some rubbing alcohol and put the tube in a centrifuge that spun it around for a few minutes. When the machine stopped, the DNA had separated from the water and settled in the form of a pellet at the bottom of the tube. It was viscous, goopy. "It's very resilient," he said. "It's like snot. DNA has the consistency of snot." DNA is deoxyribonucleic acid, a big and brawny molecule found in the nuclei of cells. No one knew until the 1940s that this molecule held the "code of life." How on earth it worked was unknown -- somehow, some way, it caused kids to look like their parents. The breakthrough came in 1953, when Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA. The molecule was twisted in a double helix. This structure allowed it to split lengthwise into two pieces, each of which would form a new molecule that would pass along the code of life. The DNA doesn't actually make anything. It's just a text of sorts. Another jumbo and rather similar molecule, RNA, carries the code from the DNA to a piece of cellular machinery called a ribosome. That, in turn, uses the instructions to create a protein. This process -- DNA to RNA to protein -- is called the "central dogma" of molecular biology. DNA carries the code for thousands of proteins. These proteins are the action figures in the construction of an organism. A protein might build bone, or eyeball, or thumbnail. It might go into the brain and nestle up against a receptor cell, triggering a thought -- such as, you're stuffed, so put away the ice cream. Cal Harley is tinkering with this biological system as a scientist for the Geron Corp. in Menlo Park, Calif. "When you study it day in and day out, sometimes you forget the majesty of it all," he says. "It's amazing." All living things use this DNA-based biochemistry. There's no particularly obvious reason why there couldn't be some animal or microbe with a different scheme of biochemistry, but no one has found any such thing. Life on Earth is right out of a Bill Gates fantasy -- there's only one operating system. "We knew it was big," says James Watson of the 1953 double-helix discovery. But Watson, who is now head of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, says that back then there was no way to appreciate just how revolutionary his genetic research would become. He still finds the future unpredictable. "I'm pretty good for five years, but I don't like to go beyond that," he says. "Things change so fast. We just can't guess." The biggest scientific project is the attempt to decode the entire human genetic code, the "genome." It has become a race. The $3 billion federal Human Genome Project, which includes Mike Erdos's lab and many others, mostly at NIH, originally set 2005 as its goal for finishing the job. But then came competition. The private sector didn't want to sit around and watch. J. Craig Venter, president of Celera, is leading the charge. Venter is a 52-year-old polymath who may be the most controversial figure in the business. He's cocky and driven. At the beginning of the decade, he was just another government researcher at the genome project. But when the government wouldn't put up a large sum of money for a new technique he favored, he cut and ran. He spliced himself into a new venture, a nonprofit organization called TIGR, the Institute for Genomic Research, which then fed its commercially valuable information to a private company called Human Genome Sciences Inc. Now he's a multimillionaire with a big sailboat named Sorcerer. He has a way of arching his eyebrows and grinning that is just a touch diabolical. One day in his office he proudly showed me the Basque walking stick he received as a gift on a trip to Spain. When you unscrew the handle you discover that it's a deadly sharp javelin. I touched the tip and Venter said, "Did I mention there's ricin on that?" Ricin is a poison. He laughed fiendishly. He recently left TIGR in order to start Celera. Celera isn't some wimpy nonprofit outfit. It has been spawned by a high-tech firm, Perkin-Elmer Corp., and will use 230 newly designed machines to decode (or "sequence") large batches of the human genome. Venter shocked the genome community by announcing earlier this year that he would sequence most of the genome by the year 2001. Another private firm, Incyte Pharmaceuticals of Palo Alto, Calif., has joined the battle. So now the government effort has moved up its goal by two years. It may be the most furious race since the effort to build the atomic bomb in the 1940s. The timetable is potentially important: When the government finds a gene, it makes the information public immediately. When a private company finds a gene, it can apply for a patent. There could be some amazing genes. "There are going to be an incredible number of nuggets," says Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project. Collins is upset that the patent office is taking what he thinks is a less-than-stringent attitude toward granting patents. Even more upset is Jeremy Rifkin. "Enormous power is being amassed to actually control the biology of the planet," he says, sitting in his Washington office. "Whoever controls the genes controls the 21st century." That's right: There's a vacancy here for a big-time James Bond villain. The villain, however, would have some tough work ahead. A detail that often gets lost in the rhetoric is that the genome itself will at first glance be gibberish. It'll be a bunch of G's and C's and A's and T's -- letters that stand for guanine, cytosine, adenine and thymine, the four nucleic acids. The code by itself has no obvious meaning. Francis Collins's DNA contains all the instructions for creating a simulacrum of Francis Collins, but the instructions are written in DNA-babble. The big breakthroughs will come from the linguists, if you will. They'll point to a stretch of DNA and say, "This is the gene for not being able to find your car keys." Or whatever. This will be the real "decoding" of the genome, and it will take much longer than a few years. It will also keep investors guessing. Because biotech is not just a science; it's a go-go business. Everyone wants to own the resource of the 21st century. Bio '98 was not a science convention. At a science convention, the standard fare is a lecture by a person who stands in darkness and projects viewgraphs of inscrutable equations. At Bio '98, the biotech industry's big convention, the standard fare was an investment seminar. The companies have names that sound like foot fungicides or something you'd spray on your shrubs: Novartis. Prolifix. Immunex. Aronex. ArQule. Allelix. ProdiGene. Phogen. Quiagen. GenetiX. Almost every company has a name that would earn you at least 50 points in Scrabble. Most of them not only have no profits, they have no products. They have no revenue whatsoever. And yet investors sink millions into them. It makes investing in an Internet startup company seem as cautious as buying U.S. Savings Bonds. What many biotech companies do have is a molecule of possible interest, perhaps. They have something that someday might be used in a clinical trial to determine if it might possibly ever become a legal drug. A guy next to you at lunch might be someone like Donald Huffman, the chief financial officer of Celtrix Pharmaceuticals, which makes a single product, still unapproved by the government, still being tested. It's a hormone called SomatoKine. It builds bone. "Some people call it the fountain of youth," Huffman said. It's not certain that it will work, however. It may never be approved. In the meantime, Celtrix is traded on the NASDAQ stock exchange. At last glance, its stock price was 29/32nds of a dollar per share, which is only 29/32nds of a dollar above free. Desperate for something tangible to sink my teeth into, I went to a ballroom full of biotech food. These are foodstuffs that have in some way been genetically altered. The french fry of the future was soggy, salty, but fundamentally normal. There was no sign of the genetic engineering. Somewhere down in the cells of the french fry there was a code, implanted by human scientists, that allowed a potato plant way out there in some field in Idaho to develop an enzyme, called Bt, to ward off the dreaded Colorado potato beetle. In the ballroom there were also some trays of chicken fingers -- "fingers" being just a metaphor, even in today's bizarre world -- that had been cooked in oil from a genetically altered sunflower. The chicken tasted like . . . chicken. The chicken was bland, and bland is good. Bland is what the biotechnology companies at Bio '98 would like their products to be. The alternative is that people will think they are being poisoned and killed and mutated by mad scientists. Right now, biotechnology is a science with serious public relations problems. It is still viewed as something potentially lethal, like the fission of the atom. The Europeans in particular are in an uproar over biotech foods. In Britain, a recent poll showed that 77 percent of the public wants a ban on biologically modified crops. Prince Charles has written, "I happen to believe that this kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God and to God alone." That's why this ballroom was set aside, so that people could come and go, nibble, talk and demonstrate that they would not gag or turn green or die. Having survived the demonstration, I went to hear a speech by a giant head. The giant head had a lean face, glasses and a bald dome. There were actually two giant heads, on massive screens in the ballroom, the projection of Robert Shapiro, the chief executive officer of Monsanto. Monsanto is a large and famous chemical company that not long ago sold all of its chemicals. It now does biotechnology. It invented the New Leaf potato that wards off the beetle. Monsanto has become a "life sciences" company. In a few decades, Shapiro told the conventioneers, human civilization will have doubled in size. There will be as many as 12 billion people on the planet. They must be fed, from fields that must be kept free of pests and weeds. They must be cared for when they get sick. They will demand resources, raw materials, all the stuff that a human being requires for existence. Worse, as incomes rise around the world, they will want even more stuff, and more stuff. They'll eat more, and get fatter, until some are as porky as Americans. The poor countries will industrialize. That is the lurking disaster, Shapiro said. If these newly affluent people recapitulate the Industrial Revolution of the West, "there simply is no good outcome." The world will be polluted beyond measure. The pressure to increase crop yields will mean more pesticides, herbicides, soil erosion, salination, fresh water shortages, agricultural runoff. There will be resource wars. There will be millions of people dying on a dirty and decaying planet. As he spoke, I found it impossible to avoid thinking of the movie "Soylent Green." It's about a dirty and overcrowded world in which people survive by eating little green wafers made of . . . well, of dead people. Shapiro argued that this nightmare need not come to pass. The Monsantos of the world have to figure out a way to allow the poor countries to skip industrialization altogether, to go directly to an information-based economy. Biotechnology, he said, is "the most important industry in the world, today and tomorrow." Survival, he said, requires the invention of "products that blur the line between food and pharmaceuticals." He was preaching to the choir, of course. This wasn't a convention of organic farmers. The ecology movement has viewed technology as the source of pollution, resource depletion, habitat destruction and overpopulation, not as the solution. The question is whether Shapiro is right, and we're past the point of no return, entering a time of history when only magic bullets from Monsanto labs can save us. As with all such issues in the capitalist world, there is the lingering question of whether the goal is not to save the planet but to make money. As soon as he finished speaking, he raced from the ballroom, assorted aides in tow. I ran after him and caught up by a bank of elevators. I asked if he thought that he and his fellow biotech industrialists would be successful in heading off the global disaster. He looked grim. "Whether you think the odds are 10 percent or 90 percent," he said, "you're going to do the same things in either case." Then he vanished into an elevator -- a man determined to save the world. It won't stopwith sunflowers and potatoes. There will be genetically engineered bacteria that can manufacture plastic, the final synthesis of the natural and artificial worlds. Maybe the experts will find a way to grow a field of polyester. The human applications, though, are where the ethical questions get stickiest. Biotech in the short run holds the promise of medical miracles. Not many people would object if Tay-Sachs disease or Huntington's chorea were eradicated from the planet. But there will also be cosmetic applications -- Propecia and Viagra a thousand times over. Biotech can potentially be used to make fat pills, youth pills, virility pills and pills that give balding guys the kind of rocketing-from-the-vertex hair normally associated with George Stephanopoulos. Then there are the very strange applications. Craig Venter has one idea: to start a new life. Venter has already decoded the entire blueprint of some simple organisms. One is called mycoplasma genitalium, which has only 470 genes. That's compared with something like 60,000 (or maybe 100,000) for a human being. What Venter and his colleagues found is that of the bug's 470 genes, only about 300 seem really necessary for it to function. It has occurred to Venter that it should be possible to assemble a functioning organism -- a completely new biological entity -- from scratch, using only the truly necessary genes. It's an amazing ambition. Venter believes he can invent an organism that has never existed on Earth -- or anywhere else, for that matter. This gives him pause. "We're not even sure it's ethically appropriate to make it." Because of the God problem. Creation is supposed to be a proprietary enterprise of the Supreme Being of the Universe. Venter has retained an ethicist, Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania. "I think I'm his conscience, actually," Caplan jokes. He doesn't get paid directly, but rather has Venter contribute to a foundation of his choice. "I'm sensitive to the idea of not wanting to be the house-bought ethicist." Caplan thinks the new life form raises more of a metaphysical question than an ethical one. The ethical issues are not so esoteric. In the name of genetics, the Nazis carried out the largest mass murder in history. Caplan is also concerned about the gold-rush nature of genome research. But he argues that there is nothing wrong with genetic engineering if it improves and expands the opportunities of the next generation. "I think parents trying to improve the opportunities and chances their kids have are being good parents," he says. Venter, meanwhile, has some work to do to convince the genomics community that he's not an opportunist and profiteer. He has promised to publish much of his research on the Internet so that anyone can use it. But Celera is definitely a profit-seeking company. In the long term, Venter says, the big money will come from an analysis of "polymorphism," which is the difference between one person and another. But it'll be a tough job, because people don't actually vary that much at the genetic level. Venter's back-of-the-envelope calculation is that two people randomly plucked from the planet will have only a .0012 percent difference in their genes. For that matter, humans and chimpanzees share more than 98 percent of their genetic code. "We're highlighting how similar we are, not only to each other, but to most other species on the planet," he says. The Human Genome Project will decipher the genetic code of only three or four or maybe five individuals, who will remain anonymous. But who cares about their genomes? The genome that really matters to you is yours. So Venter and others want to get into something called pharmacogenomics. This is where you'd go into a lab and have your genotype (your code) deciphered. Ultimately, that information would show doctors which kinds of drugs and treatments to prescribe for you. They might have a lot more medicines at their disposal, because your body may tolerate many highly effective drugs that have been banned for human use after causing problems in a relatively small percentage of the population. In the middle of this analytical process would be Celera, which would have an elaborate database of information that it would lease to pharmaceutical companies for a tidy fee. There are some scary possibilities, too. Your genetic information could wind up in the wrong hands. An employer might decide you are a genetic risk. An insurance company might deny you coverage. Another consequence would be a great many revelations about paternity. The DNA doesn't lie. Already this happens in genetic research: Test subjects frequently turn out to be the biological offspring of someone other than Daddy. The general rule in the research community is that it's best not to mention it. Another huge question is whether biotech will have applications in the realm of intelligence and personality and behavior. In general, intelligence and behavior are thought to be multi-factorial, meaning they're not reducible to a single gene the way, say, brown eyes might be. But one researcher has already claimed that he's found a gene that is associated with a 2 percent increase in IQ. No one thinks that humanity can be reduced to mere genetics. But there are researchers, such as Dean Hamer of NIH, who tend to be more reductionist than others. Hamer is famous for finding a gene that he believes is associated with male homosexuality. Hamer argues that many human behaviors -- shyness, depression, high libido, anxiety -- are potentially affected by genes, and perhaps by just a few genes. But even Hamer acknowledges that the brain is not a simple contraption. It's not modular, where you stick in a new doohickey to replace the old one. "It's more like the economy than it's like a robotic device," Hamer says in his NIH laboratory. "There are many interconnections that we don't totally understand, and tinkering with one little bit can have effects we don't anticipate." In other words, you take a pill that's supposed to make you lose weight, and the next thing you know you're growing fangs and sleeping in a coffin. There is a problem with forecasting the fu-ture: We always get it wrong. The atomic era promised two things: extremely cheap energy ("too cheap to meter") and the annihilation of human civilization. It was sort of a good-news, bad-news thing. But the atomic era was a dud. No one builds nuclear power plants in America anymore because they are too expensive to operate safely and legally. The superpowers, meanwhile, forgot to hold World War III. The Space Age is another futuristic concept that has seen better days. The space people are so short of new ideas they sent John Glenn back up. Artificial intelligence? It was a hot idea 20 years ago, but the smart machines seem kind of dumb lately. The IBM computer system called Deep Blue managed to beat Garry Kasparov at chess, but only through "brute force" computing. No one has yet invented a computer that can take cognitive shortcuts -- much less give a hoot whether it wins. There have been, over the past century, two competing futures, which can be simply categorized as utopian and dystopian. The intriguing thing about biotech is the way it splices them together. The utopian future was extremely futuristic. It was mechanized, electrified, atomicized. It had a lot of nifty machines. Rooms were so clean they looked like laboratories. Humans wore uniforms, with bright colors like red and yellow. Some had V-shaped vests with shoulder fins so wide they could barely fit through a door. No one had any reason to break a sweat. To get almost anywhere you could stand still on a moving sidewalk. Your house would be made of waterproof plastic, and on cleaning day you'd simply hose everything down. Clothes would never get wrinkled -- because they'd be made of the same stuff as your sofa.
continued on page 27 This future could be seen at theme parks. Disney called it Tomorrowland. The other future, the dystopian, was hideously and nightmarishly dark. It was a future in which human freedom would be crushed by totalitarian governments and soul-destroying technologies. George Orwell in 1984 gave us a vision of the future as a boot heel in the face -- forever. There was a spell there in the 1950s and 1960s when it seemed as though every science fiction story was premised on the Earth turning into an irradiated wasteland. Of the various dystopian predictions of the future, the one that stands out is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Published in 1932, the novel describes biotechnology in horrific detail. The story is set 600 years in the future, in a world in which humans become an assembly-line product, grown from sperm and egg in factories and carefully programmed to believe social dogmas. Society is divided into castes that are biologically engineered, with Alphas as the elites and Epsilons as the low-intelligent drones. The elites take a feel-good drug called "soma." Huxley's vision is recognizable in the contemporary debate over biotech. There is much soma on the horizon. Increasingly people will be able to affect their minds with carefully designed chemicals, above and beyond the remarkable antidepressants and stimulants already on the market. On the Internet there are sites devoted to the glories of "smart drugs" that supposedly enhance brain function. But this is not a Brave New World as yet. To the extent that there is a caste system, it is driven by economics, discrimination, educational inequities, language barriers and other factors, and not by scientists in lab coats manipulating embryos. Why doesn't the future ever turn out like it's supposed to? Freeman Dyson, author of a brilliant new book, Imagined Worlds, says we are simply not very imaginative in general. Nature has a better imagination. The science fiction writer Thomas Disch has pointed out that even the incredible visions of the Space Age are not really that imaginative. Rocket ships, the iconographic technology of space travel, seem like wonderful inventions to 13-year-old boys because they are basically souped-up cars. "Star Trek"? Not remotely imaginative. Disch says the bridge of the Enterprise is basically a modern office, a place for teamwork and efficiency, with everyone dressing alike. Kirk and Spock might as well be selling insurance. The totalitarian vision of Orwell was simply an extension of what already existed in the late 1940s in the communist world. The truly unimaginable thing, as late as the 1980s, was that the mighty Soviet Union would simply go poof. It may turn out that biotechnologically altered humans will be added to the list of things that were supposed to happen but didn't. There is something that almost everyone forgets about when they make forecasts for the future: human choice. People might not want to have six arms. They didn't even want to buy the biotech tomato called the Flavr Savr. People are not yet robots who can be programmed by advertisers to consume the latest hot product. They might not want to do what a recent electronics advertisement said they'd be able to do: send e-mail while watching their child play soccer. Maybe they'd rather watch the game! Elizabeth Thomson, who now works on ethical issues for the Human Genome Proj- ect, has an observation for anyone concerned about designer babies. She's spent much of her career as a genetic counselor, dealing with couples who are worried about possible genetic ailments in their off- spring. Most people, she says, don't actually plan pregnancies. They just turn up pregnant one day. (You could say they chose not to plan. People get amorous. Accidents happen.) "If you're going to design your baby, you've got to plan it," she says. "It is hard for me to envision a day when people will pick out of a catalogue the kind of child that they want." There is also a tendency to exaggerate the prowess of the biotechnicians. Sure, they cloned a sheep, but Ian Wilmut required 277 attempts before he finally came up with Dolly. The very best cloning scheme still is successful only 3 percent of the time. Even if the technology drastically improves, there will remain the question of why someone would want to be cloned. It's not as if you'd have a second chance at life. You'd just be manufacturing a much younger twin. It's a technology without a market, except for the small niche market of dictators and madmen. The anti-aging technologies are also marked by big talk more than action. Michael Rose, the researcher who doubled the life span of fruit flies, is careful to point out that although there is excellent basic research on anti-aging strategies, there is no actual technology in sight. Nothing has emerged from the lab that could possibly be sold in a drugstore. "Nobody has anything," he says. "The science is fabulous in this area. The technology is nonexistent." A good example is what's happening in Cal Harley's lab at Geron Corp. Harley has discovered that human cells can be "reset" to function as though they were much younger. Normally, cells will divide about 50 times and then stop. They hit the Hayflick limit, named after a San Francisco biologist. They appear to run out of gas when a protective extension on the cell called a telomere gets worn down. It's analogous to what happens to a shoelace after the little plastic tip gets cracked and beat up. Harley's strategy is to keep the telomeres intact. He's grown these specially treated cells in the lab, and they are still growing, dividing away without a care in the world. The technology could potentially be used to prevent damage to cells, such as bone marrow cells, that are extracted and pummeled during certain cancer treatments. Later it might be used to prevent numerous diseases associated with the wear and tear of life -- things like osteoporosis, heart disease, macular degeneration, thinning skin, hair loss and perhaps Alzheimer's dementia. But for now there's a big problem: cancer. Because, you see, a cell that divides indefinitely basically is cancer. "Inhibiting telomerase is a great way to cause cancer," says Dean Hamer. "That's a bad side effect. You would have lived indefinitely but you died of huge tumors.' " Agricultural engineering could be primed for the most spectacular failure in the business. Aside from the public relations problems, there's the nature problem. Nature is highly adaptive and responsive. A mutant potato beetle may emerge in just a few years that is not put off by the enzyme in the genetically engineered potato. The more you try to eradicate microbes and germs and insects, the more pressure you put on them to evolve. Pour more pesticides onto fields, and you're inviting nature to give you a superbug. What about pharmacogenomics, that idea of custom-made medicines based on your genotype? William Haseltine, a former partner of Venter's, says it's not going to happen any time soon. "That is a dream that is so far in the future and so divorced from the current reality that it is impossible to know if it will ever happen." At Bio '98, Haseltine said there are too many possible adverse reactions to a drug, and there's no way to predict who will have one. In other words, we aren't that easily decoded. "We are different ages. We have different health. We have different diets. We take different drugs. None of that is genetic." In fact, he said, even though we have only one genetic code, our bodies are full of variations and quirks. As we develop, many genes work together in mysterious ways. "There's enormous variation from cell to cell, from tissue to tissue, from person to person, that comes from multiple genes," he said. The genes are just information. The body is something real and alive. When people talk about eugenics, they usually think in terms of increasing intelligence, strength, appearance, talent and so on. There isn't a gene for any of these things. There are lots of genes that influence these things, not to mention the environment in which the genes operate -- home, school, neighborhood, nutrition, even (can we say this in the age of genetic determinism?) personal choice. Craig Venter, of all people, is among those who caution that we're a long way from reconfiguring the human species. Yes, he's bullish about decoding the genome, and he is convinced that he can find some critical genes in the process. But he, too, believes that a human being is vastly more complicated than the average person realizes. He points to the case of the "cystic fibrosis gene." Like most genes named after diseases, the gene is present in every human. Some people have a mutation in the gene that leads to cystic fibrosis. But, it turns out, scientists have discovered at least 500 different mutations, some of which have no effect whatsoever. No one has a clue why some of the mutations cause the disease. Venter argues that we're still in a primitive state of knowledge about how genes affect our lives. "How can we go on and change things when we can't understand a single gene?" he asks. There's so much slop in the system, so many moving parts. The blueprint of life itself is not even static. Genes mutate spontaneously. Cosmic radiation whams into our cells and alters our code. Identical twins don't actually have a precisely identical genome, because their DNA constantly mutates. "It's a dynamic, living, self-correcting, evolving text," Venter says. Sure, he says, biotech will lead to an intervention in the natural evolution of the species. But it will be a lot harder than anyone thinks. "Intelligent application of this technology is one to two centuries away," Venter says. And he's the optimist! If nothing else, we have at our disposal one possible way to approach the philosophical dilemma of biotech. Let your grandkids worry about it. Since this is the verge of the millennium, we must swim into the deeper water. Looking at the very long term, biotech weirdness seems more plausible. Arthur C. Clarke had a truism: "If something is possible in theory, and no fundamental scientific laws oppose its realization, then sooner or later it will be achieved." In theory, the manipulation of genes will allow humans to live in radically different environments -- such as on Mars. There are futurists who talk of a kind of cosmic manifest destiny, in which biotech plays a role in springing humankind from the confines of Earth. They foresee us going into space and bringing Earthlife along for the ride. Our genes will radiate across the Milky Way and then to galaxies beyond. Barbara Marx Hubbard thinks it's no coincidence that the structure of DNA was discovered in 1953, roughly the same time as the origin of the Space Age. "In the fourth millennium we'll probably be intergalactic. We'll move beyond our solar system," Hubbard says. "I think the reason an intelligent species has gained the power to understand the atom, understand the gene, is so that we can become a universal species." Freeman Dyson suggests that our descendants will someday live on comets. That's where the turf is, he says -- on the surfaces of the billions of comets that reside in the Oort Cloud far beyond Pluto. (Now there's a mailing address.) "Probably we'll be a million species before long," he says. The Martian humans will be different from the humans back on Earth. "For example, if you want to run around naked on Mars you'd need a thick skin. I can imagine our descendants on Mars will be more like polar bears. We might decide to grow fur to keep warm rather than sitting in space suits." He also foresees a new technology called radiotelepathy that employs tiny transmitters and receivers in the brain. Eventually "collectives" of people will link up in a singular consciousness, the experience of which will be so intense, so enrapturing, that participants will find it hard to communicate anymore with someone who is single-minded, as it were. The search for human improvement will surely have unintended consequences. The ultimate catch is that as we ameliorate pain and suffering, we also run the risk of becoming soft, feeble, complacent. The best expression of this phenomenon is in H.G. Wells's novel The Time Machine, in which the character known simply as the Time Traveler goes forward to the year 802701. He discovers that the human race has split into two species: the gentle, infantile Eloi, who cavort amid the crumbling ruins of a great civilization, and the Morlocks, bestial creatures who run the subterranean machinery of the planet and emerge at night to eat the Eloi. The Time Traveler explains, "The too-perfect security of the Upper-worlders had led them to a slow movement of degeneration, to a general dwindling in size, strength and intelligence." Perfection may be a dangerous goal. Nature has feedback systems. There are microbes that adapt to our every move. We think of ourselves as the rulers of the planet; the microbes think of us as a useful host. At some level, we're still just a bunch of meat. Perfection may not even be a goal worth pursuing. There is something more interesting about a mortal, imperfect life. Here's a thought: The revolutionaries of the future will be the people who keep their lives natural. They will choose to grow old. They will allow themselves to experience pain and suffering, so that their joys and triumphs will be all the more intense. They will walk in the woods and sing songs and appreciate the bounty of the planet. Two lovers might put down a blanket and have a picnic. They will fall asleep, because they still get sleepy. They will do this instead of going to the lab to be genetically reengineered. Ed Cornish says that people tend to assume that they are helpless to affect the future. They think of it as an inevitability. The future, he argues, is what we make it. In fact, the greatest change in the last half-century is a cultural and political one. Forget biotech. Forget computers. Forget jet travel and television. The most dramatic change in the American landscape has been civil rights for minorities and the movement of women into the workplace. To some extent, it was an unforeseen consequence of the productivity-enhancing, time-saving technology of the Industrial Revolution. Consider this: The 1953 version of "The War of the Worlds" won an Oscar for special effects. By today's standards those effects are primitive. The aliens themselves are absurd little things that look like a cross between a gecko and a hassock, dominated by a single eyeball. Their biochemistry definitely appears to be based on plastic. What's most jarring, though, is how outdated the social roles are. There is a moment when a general enters a room and shakes hands with a bunch of other important men. Then along comes the one woman in the movie, the love interest, and when the general greets her she says, "Would you care for some coffee?" She is serving coffee to the men. It's her role. She has to do something! Later she screams and faints a lot. Decades later the Martians still haven't landed. But pretty much everyone has to get his or her own coffee. In a century, people might look back at our world today and what will shock them is not that we grew old and gray and eventually ceased to live. Rather they might be shocked that so many millions of people were poor, that so many were in prison, that entire nations lived in misery. Their world may be one of fairness, universal opportunity and the enjoyment of nature. They will spend their time walking through forest trails, looking for a fine place to fish. Or does that sound like science fiction? Joel Achenbach is a Post staff writer. His most recent book is Why Things Are & Why Things Aren't.