/ 29 March 2019

Hachimoji DNA: Stirring debate

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)


The incredibly complex genetic codes of all living things on Earth are written with a simple four-letter alphabet: A, C, G and T. These letters are abbreviations for the four nucleotides that are the natural building blocks of DNA.

Hachimoji DNA, however, expands the natural genetic alphabet. Hachimoji means eight letters in Japanese and hachimoji DNA adds four new letters: B, P, S and Z.

The creation of hachimoji DNA is not merely a matter of inserting four new synthetic types of nucleotides into a string of DNA. The big scientific challenge is to ensure that the cell understands and follows the instructions given by this new code.

The first step towards overcoming this challenge, called DNA transcription, has been accomplished in laboratory conditions by the researchers who developed hachimoji DNA. But there is still a long and difficult research journey ahead.

Hachimoji DNA is a nascent technology and thus its applications are, at least for now, far off into the future. Currently, the thinking is to use hachimoji DNA to create microscopic organisms programmed to diagnose illnesses, other microscopic organisms to detect new viruses, and still others to produce useful proteins to be used for medicines.

Consider the following: insulin, the well-known medicine that can be life-changing for people who suffer from diabetes, is produced by using legions of microscopic organisms, bacteria to be exact, to replicate the human insulin gene. The same “production line” can be employed but with hachimoji-created micro-organisms, which can produce more complex cures.

The news about hachimoji DNA and other advances does not only point to a better future for humankind but also calls to mind concerns about possible, less desirable outcomes.

A popular theme in the sci-fi genre is the emergence of a dystopian society in which a genetically enhanced, elite class of humans, seeing themselves as superior, trample on the unenhanced underclass, which is made up of natural humans like us.

The moral question of these futuristic sci-fi dramas seems to be: As human societies already struggling with social inequality, should we go down the path of developing genetic technologies that may exacerbate the current inequalities?

Completely stopping some technological development may be impossible, given that consensus on such an issue and actual enforcement by all jurisdictions in the world are unlikely. If we accept that hachimoji DNA and other biotechnological developments are likely to continue apace at an international level, the question should rather be: How should South Africa position itself regarding these emerging biotechnologies?

One approach would be to ban certain (future) technologies. For instance, consider a scenario in which scientists somewhere in the world develop a way to genetically engineer future generations to make them immune to tuberculosis, with no side effects, but with a costly price tag to the healthcare consumer. If made available in a country like South Africa, only a few people would be able to afford it and thus further inequality will result. In order to avoid this outcome, the government might be tempted to ban this new technology.

But would such a ban be constitutional? No. The Constitutional Court held that equality means that the less well-off should be lifted up, not that the most well-off should be pushed down. What would then be the solution from the perspective of promoting equality and social justice?

The first important step is to decolonise one’s view of South Africa in the new, knowledge-based global economy. South Africa should not be viewed merely as a knowledge colony destined only to consume technology developed elsewhere, but also as a knowledge producer in its own right.

This means that the focus shifts from how South Africa should deal with the social impact of biotechnologies developed elsewhere to how it can influence the agenda for the development of biotechnologies.

In this decolonised paradigm, the important realisation is that the path of developing new genetic technologies can be guided by society’s priorities. First, and most importantly, the government can incentivise scientists to focus their research on finding solutions to South Africa’s most pressing healthcare needs, such as TB, HIV and malaria. This will require some long-term investment by the government, such as internationally competitive scholarships for young South Africans to study biosciences; infrastructure and support for bioscience entrepreneurs; and more grants to fund ambitious research projects.

Of course, we also need a clear and enabling regulatory environment, which strikes a careful balance between relevant constitutional rights, including everyone’s right to access healthcare and the privacy of research participants, with the freedom of scientists to conduct research.

Will South Africa be a knowledge colony that just consumes the products of bioscience research done elsewhere, such as possible future hachimoji DNA technology? Or will we build our own bioscience research capacity to contribute to building a flourishing and more equal future South African society?

Dr Donrich Thaldar, Bonginkosi Shozi and Michaela Steytler are with the School of Law and the African Health Research Flagship at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.