How Artificial Chromosomes Could Transform HumanityGeorge Dvorsky7/12/13 3:00pmFiled to: Daily explainerFuturismbiotechnologychromosomesartificial human chromosomesartificial chromosomesgeneticsethicsbioethicshuman germline engineeringgregory stocktranshumanismhuman enhancementscience5512EditPromoteShare to KinjaToggle Conversation toolsGo to permalinkNormally, an extra pair of chromosomes would be considered dangerous. But what if we could design our own? According to biologists, we could create custom-built chromosomes to fix a variety of health problems, and even give us new abilities. Here’s how a 24th pair of chromosomes could change our biologies forever.AdvertisementTo learn more about this incredible prospect, we spoke to biophysicist Gregory Stock. He is the Chief Science Officer of Ecoeos, a company that develops clinically-validated DNA tests to measure personal susceptibility to environmental toxins. Stock is also the author of Redesigning Humans: Choosing Our Genes, Changing Our Future, and the recently updated Book of Questions which is scheduled for release later this year.But before we get into artificial human chromosomes (AHCs), let’s quickly review what chromosomes are in the first place. Packages of Genetic MaterialChromosomes are packages of the genetic material located in our cells — the foundation of our basic biology as an organism. They’re not a recipe for us, but they do specify the sequence of events that lead to the development of mature organisms. Chromosomes offer a way for nuclear material to be packaged, protected, and maintained as it’s passed from cell to cell.AdvertisementDifferent components of chromosomes are turned on and off in different contexts and in various parts of the body. There are anywhere from around 250 million bases on some chromosomes, down to about 50 million on others.We humans have 23 pairs, for a total of 46. These structures are very tightly organized windings of DNA that become encoiled in a complicated way and allow for division each time a cell divides, so that each cell has the same complement of genetics.There are two types: autosomal and sex chromosomes.AdvertisementSponsoredSometimes, an added chromosome can be problematic. An extra chromosome 21 leads to trisomy, also known as Down syndrome. XXYY syndrome happens when males have an extra X and Y chromosome, leading to developmental delays, extra height, and learning disabilities.Now With Added Function!But adding extra chromosomes artificially won’t necessarily be a bad thing. And in fact, they could be quite advantageous. When inserted during the in vitro fertilization (IVF) stage, they could serve as remarkable and flexible platform for the insertion of genetics.“The main attraction of creating an artificial human chromosome is that they can be passed down from generation to generation,” says Stock. “There’s all sorts of mechanisms and structures in place that would allow for the division and faithful reproduction of those chromosomes.” What’s more, he explains, physicians will be able to control the various elements of the genetic sequences. We’ll be able to turn them on or off, or even accelerate their expression. Certain chromosomes may be put in place to serve as a backup, or to function at a specific stage of a person’s life (such as during elderly years when existing genetics isn’t up to the task).Stock says we could add an additional pair, bumping our total up to 24. Or, if we wanted to deploy them in discrete and tidy packages — which would contribute greatly to their flexibility — we could just keep adding pair after pair after pair. In fact, the technology to do this could come sooner rather than later, with chromosomes containing a mere 10 to 20 megabases.“Ideally, if you were to create an extra chromosome, rather than putting extra genetic material and inserting it into an existing chromosome — where it might be put into a random spot or put into something else that’s going on — you have a very controlled environment,” he told io9. “You can create these things, duplicate them independently, and put them in different organisms. It’s a very controlled process.” AdvertisementAdvertisementAnd in fact, this is already being done. The prospect got off the ground back in 1997 after John Harrington and Huntington Willard developed a technique for doing so. Bacterial artificial chromosomes are used in labs all the time, as are yeast ACs (called YACs). Biologists have even created ACs in mice. We’re currently at the nascent stage of human artificial chromosomes. “When you start to think about the potential for architectural intervention in humans, an attractive feature is that it could be so controlled that you could make it conditional,” says Stock. “This way, you can turn the elements on or off and at different points — similar to the way it happens in the fine orchestration of genetic activity in the developmental process.” Stock says that we’ll be able to put some new genetic material into a chromosome and not have to turn it on until the individual is an adult. As a result, we won’t be tampering with the very sensitive arena of human development — something that would prove to be far more difficult to manage in a fully mature adult.He envisions the day when we’ll be able to use AHCs to increase human immune function, slow down the effects of aging — or even boost our memory and intelligence. They could serve a new form of immunization, protecting against specific diseases like AIDS or certain cancers.