How low does communication go? Will we one day be able to understand and influence communication at the atomic level?
Humans, fish and other animals talk to each other — even if they don’t always listen. We all know that bees talk; they surround their queen and fatten her up while protecting the hive.
We’ve also learned that plants communicate about their surroundings, a subject most elegantly written about in Michael Pollan’s best-selling book, “The Botany of Desire.”
Surprisingly, we have learned that even bacteria talk, a phenomenon called “quorum sensing.” The bacteria can recruit other bacteria to join them, raising their level of potency to cause an active infection. They can also lay dormant and awaken together at just the right time for them — and often the wrong time for a patient.
Viruses clearly talk. They infect cells and inject their DNA into the nuclei of healthy cells to turn them into killers. HIV is the best (and worst) example of this genetic conversation.
Even smaller units of life talk. Enzymes signal to affect protein activation and feedback controls. The regulation of entire cascades of biomechanical processes depend on complex communication systems that might last fractions of a second or days at a time.
We now know that all of these inputs can affect our genetic makeup and its expression. Our genes change with drugs, stimuli and an infinite number of other forces. They then produce a phenomenal variety of chemical markers, all from a genetic language containing only four letters: A,T,C and G. And what happens when we learn to add letters to the four that now constitute our human genome? This synthetic biologic syntax is already in the testing stage. The human dictionary is about to expand exponentially.
What if we can learn to listen, understand and respond to genetic communications? Could we have a genetic Fitbit and language translator? And, as gene editing techniques like CRISPR Cas-9 continue to become less inexpensive and more available, could we engage in a daily conversation with our personal genetic dictionary?
When George Jetson came home and walked through his doorway scanner and said, “Hi, Honey. I’m home!” could he have chosen which version of him would say so?
Don’t be so quick to laugh this off. We already take medications that change our protein constitution. We touch, kiss, make love and share microbiomes in thousands of ways each day. In our current practice of orthopaedics, we inject stem cells and growth factors from healthy donors into injured patients — and this is turning out to be the most potent, effective therapy we have ever seen. We believe that the stem cells in these preparations communicate with each other, recruiting other stem and progenitor cells to the site of injury or arthritis. Once there, they instruct injured tissues, inducing them to heal.
We are actively engaged in the transmission of cellular and gene-altering vectors and studying what happens on the level of cellular communication. What we need is a tool to help us interpret this language on much a smaller, even atomic, scale. For now, though, it’s mostly Greek to us.
Dr. Kevin R. Stone is an orthopedic surgeon at The Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Research Foundation in San Francisco.