Imagine we could vanquish all viruses. We’d never get swine flu or viral meningitis. We’d be done with AIDS. And these beautiful endings wouldn’t come from some brash new medicine. Instead, we’d use the ultimate prevention strategy — we’d change our very genes. Long story short: Viruses can replicate inside our cells because they use the same genetic language our cells use. Host and guest can easily converse, and thus interact. But what if you did some Tower of Babel jujitsu? In biological terms, you’d alter the host cell’s “codons,” which are the translators in the messenger RNA chain of DNA.
George Church, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School, explains what happens next: “The viral genetic message that formerly made perfect molecular sense to the host cell now amounts to nonsense . . . The upshot: multivirus resistance — immunity to all viruses.” Church envisions such a future — which is closer than you think — in the book he coauthored with science writer Ed Regis, “Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves” (Basic, 2012). This is one of many new titles out in the wake of the Human Genome Project, the wild growth of DNA data, and the dawn of gene therapy.