WIRED January 2000 issue
"The Future Gets Fun Again"
Feature Article "Don't Die, Stay Pretty" interview with Natasha
Die, Stay Pretty.
Introducing the ultrahuman makeover.
By Brian Alexander
Judith Campisi, Calvin Harley, Cynthia Kenyon, and Gregory Stock are sitting onstage in a campus theater at UC Berkeley, looking a little shell-shocked. All four are big-time researchers studying various aspects of aging: Campisi is a cell biologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Harley is a cell biologist and chief scientific officer at Geron Corporation, Kenyon is a geneticist at UC San Francisco, and Stock directs the Program on Science, Technology, and Society at UCLA. They're not the types to brag about the implications of their work. But this event - Extro 4, the fourth confab of the Extropy Institute - is all about big-noise pronouncements, and the volume is drowning out the panel's scientific modesty.
The Extropians, of course, are techno-believers with boundless faith in science's power to amp up human potential. Extro 4 is devoted to their favorite topics: life extension, and the utopian future they believe will come about thanks to 21st-century advances in genetic engineering, biochemistry, and medical technology. A little later, the scientists will hear the Extropy Institute's founder, a chiseled, ponytailed philosophy PhD named Max More, confidently declare, "This is the fourth revolution in our history - the ultrahuman revolution." They'll also hear More's wife, an artist and bodybuilder named Natasha Vita-More, sketch out a future in which people will enjoy multiple sex organs, polymer skin that changes color like a mood ring, and virtual reality eyeball implants.
But right now the researchers are getting an earful from another Extropian, Robert Bradbury, a Harvard dropout and failed biotech entrepreneur. He provokes an awkward moment by addressing the panelists as fellow warriors in a crusade against anyone who doubts the possibility (or wisdom) of vastly increased human longevity.
"We have to deal with human naturalists," he says, "those people who think it is nonhuman to live 200 years, or the religious deathists, who have a significant amount of power by having the key to the Pearly Gates, so to speak, and the limits-to-growth camp, and, of course, the bureaucratic fearmongers like the Social Security Administration!" He looks at the scientists. "I realize most of the panel are not sociologists. Maybe Greg would like to comment."
Campisi tries to stifle a smirk. Harley's shoulders slump. Stock shifts in his chair and gets ready to say something. Here they sit, an all-star group, facing an organization founded by life-extension zealots who met at one of Timothy Leary's parties - and they've suddenly become "we." It's as if four Catholic bishops found themselves in a nude, sweaty scrum with a roomful of Larry Flynts.
But the scientists did show up, a visible acknowledgment that Extropian rhetoric isn't nearly as wild as it sounds. For years the research establishment has treated efforts to lengthen the maximum human life span as a kind of science porn. That's changing: In recent months, it has become obvious that many scientists and research corporations are taking longevity research seriously enough to make hefty investments in it.
Life extension remains a touchy topic, though. Few legitimate scientists will publicly advocate it; government grants still don't flow to it. As enthusiastic amateurs, the Extropians can afford to be loud - but in the mainstream, reflexive condemnation is more often the rule. In his 1999 book on aging, Time of Our Lives, British gerontologist Tom Kirkwood dismisses as "contemptible" scientists who "tout their advances as heralding 200-year human life spans coming soon, or who condone journalists who hint at this."
"When people apply for funding to the National Institute on Aging, they are exceptionally careful not to bring up life-span extension," says Richard Miller, a University of Michigan gerontologist. "It is forbidden. They talk about specific diseases and preserving health and 'successful aging.' That is what's politically clever."
Uneasy though the Extro 4 panelists might be, the gap between the two sides is narrowing. The Extropians know it. The scientists know it. Gregory Stock especially seems to know it. Looking reluctant at first, he responds to Bradbury's monologue. To the Extropians' delight, he agrees with Bradbury. It's true, he says. Life extension is coming. In time the opposition will be outweighed by the sheer numbers of people willing to pay for a future of increased longevity.
And they will have something worth paying for. Because, Stock says, "we are at the point of remaking human biology."
Scientists have long regarded the human life span as relatively fixed. Currently, the maximum is 122 years, the age at which Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, the longest-lived human for whom reliable records exist, died in 1997.
In the 20th century, doctors and researchers have focused mainly on expanding the average life expectancy, succeeding dramatically in the developed world - adding 30 years in the United States, for instance. Today, as a result of antibiotics, vaccines, public sanitation, and preventive medicine, so many centenarians are puttering around that Willard Scott would have to say happy birthday to about 200 a day just to keep up.
Until recently, it was assumed that these oldsters were simply edging closer to a set-in-stone life-span limit. But these days, a growing number of scientists agree that humans are poised for a breakthrough in longevity and what might be called "human repairability" - a new era that will not only raise the maximum age, but also deliver unimaginable new methods for preserving and even redesigning our own bodies. The scientific stigma is disappearing.
Just ask Michael Rose, a UC Irvine evolutionary biologist who has spent more than 10 years studying fruit-fly genetics, helping the flies more than double their previous life span. "I am now working on immortality," Rose says flatly. "It is an Einsteinian revolution compared with what we used to do."
Rose knows how jarring this sounds, even when he adds the caveat that immortality is generations away. "Twenty years ago the idea of postponing aging was weird and off-the-wall," he says. "Who gives a fuck what people consider flaky! If it's the truth, it's the truth, goddamn it, and I don't care if it is more than people want to hear."
Life extension is no longer shocking - researchers have achieved it regularly with lab animals, including mammals. In fact, it has occurred routinely since 1935, when rodents fed very-low-calorie diets started to outlive their chubby colleagues. Why this works remains unknown, but new research breakthroughs make it possible to consider aging seriously as a solvable problem. The solutions are not here yet, but they're close enough so a payoff is imaginable - and payoffs are what drive research. Rose argues that whoever harnesses life-extension technology first will reap the greatest economic reward in human history - not just on a Microsoft scale, but on the scale of the entire information age.
Already, a scientific land rush is under way. It focuses on three broad areas: the genetics of aging, techniques to immortalize cells and tissues, and exploitation of the basic modeling clay of our bodies - pluripotent stem cells.
The science underlying this scramble is becoming more solid every day. Life extension has been engineered in every lab animal that researchers have tinkered with: yeast, the nematode worm C. elegans, fruit flies, and mice. The techniques have varied. Michael Rose bred longer-living flies. Other researchers tweaked mice on the Weight Watchers plan, feeding them calorie-restricted diets that may have switched on still-mysterious genetic anti-aging mechanisms. (Calorie restriction is also being tried now with monkeys.) Geneticists have directly altered yeast and worms to make them live longer, and they're doing the same with mice.
The animals in all these experiments don't just live longer, they live better. Wild C. elegans look as tattered as a battle flag by the time they die. Cynthia Kenyon says the genetically altered worms she studies at UCSF look sleek and vibrant through middle age, a claim researchers using other species echo.
"My flies are superflies," Rose says of his insects. "My flies do more, for longer. They are having sex when other flies are long since dead."
Researchers don't agree on what specific mechanisms they've tapped into, or on what these may mean for humans. But what began as a tangle of possible longevity strategies is becoming a braided strand of knowledge about reproduction, energy, and stress.
Evolution plays the part of fickle lover to our bodies, or somas. It loves our somas, nurtures them, makes them strong in youth so we can pass on germ cells - our eggs and sperm - to produce another generation. Once we've accomplished this, evolution loses interest. If we live, fine. If we die, fine. The good news is that evolution doesn't require that we die, either. It doesn't care. It simply lets our bodies run down like a car with an empty tank.
Scientists are exploiting this fact from several angles. Food is one. A semistarved animal doesn't have sex on its mind: It focuses on survival. The soma may have a strategy for preserving itself through lean times so it can pass on germ cells later. Then, once sufficient food is available, the animal reproduces, passes on its germ cells, and the aging clock starts again.
This happens in the nematode C. elegans. When food is scarce, a very young worm can enter a kind of suspended animation, called dauer. It's still alive, it still can move, but it doesn't have much of a life. Once it encounters enough food, it snaps out of dauer, eats, and reproduces. In dauer, a worm can live for months. After coming out of dauer, it survives about two weeks.
But now there is a dauer bypass. Changes in just two C. elegans genes - daf-2, which Kenyon calls the "grim reaper" gene, and daf-16, the "fountain of youth" gene - doubled the lives of worms, even though they were well fed and not in dauer. That's roughly equivalent to humans living 200 years. What's so interesting about this approach is that daf-2 encodes a protein that looks very much like a receptor for human insulin and insulin growth-factor 1, both of which help control how the body metabolizes glucose, the basic form of cellular energy.
How we metabolize glucose may have a lot to do with why we grow old. When cells burn glucose, their smokestacks emit a form of pollution, rogue oxygen molecules called free radicals. These go bouncing through cells like Flubber in the china department at Harrods, crashing into cell parts and nicking chromosomes - so that when the DNA replicates, mistakes result. Over time, these rowdy molecules knock down the building. The cells age. Tissue function diminishes. The body ages. We die.
That process is called oxidative stress, and some researchers suggest it could be manipulated to increase longevity. When C. elegans worms are exposed to a variety of environmental stresses in incrementally larger doses, they live longer, possibly because the stress triggered genetically embedded protection mechanisms.
This tantalizing interconnectedness - that all the lab models share a significant number of genes with people, and that such small amounts of genetic meddling can so drastically lengthen a worm's life - has led Richard Miller, the University of Michigan gerontologist, to believe that "aging is a single, fairly tightly controlled process that has a relatively small number of genes timing it."
If Miller is right, researchers could someday develop small-molecule pharmaceuticals to manipulate human genes. Though the politics of life-extension drugs are snarled - at present, the FDA would never approve any drug developed for that purpose because proving its safety and effectiveness would be nearly impossible - some drugs may sneak in the back door.
Thomas Johnson, a University of Colorado geneticist who believes there are "no fixed upper limits to human longevity," suggests one possible scenario: "We will find some drugs that will be approved by the FDA because they prevent heart disease or Alzheimer's," he says, "and then we will discover - aha! - they also, by golly, make 80-year-olds look like 60-year-olds."
The steady drift of life-extension research toward the mainstream appears all the more likely because of the serious investment capital it's attracting. In 1997 Johnson, financed by several venture capital firms, started Genoplex, a privately held company that seeks to map quantitative trait loci, or QTLs, which he defines as groupings of genes that underlie complex traits like alcoholism, heart disease, and long life. Johnson's research, using DNA sensing and sequencing to target likely QTLs in mice in hopes of manipulating them, has drawn funding from the Ellison Medical Foundation, a nonprofit research outfit created in 1997 by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison.
Ellison also supports studies by other top longevity researchers, including Cynthia Kenyon and Judith Campisi, both of whom have predicted that dramatic life-span extension will become a reality in the 21st century. Ellison's PR manager says the foundation doesn't discuss its work, but longevity studies are obviously a high priority there. Ellison selected a big-league player, Richard Sprott, the former director of the Biology of Aging program at the National Institute on Aging, to administer up to $20 million annually ladled out to promising researchers.
Several marquee scientists are more outspoken than Ellison about how research today could lead to immortality tomorrow. Human Genome Sciences, based in Rockville, Maryland, is a $2 billion company that has partnered with pharmaceutical giant SmithKline Beecham to the tune of $125 million. It was founded by William Haseltine, a former Harvard biochemist and cancer researcher who helped decipher the structure of HIV. Haseltine claims to possess sequences for almost all human genes and to have a vast database of the products those genes make - including the chemical signals that direct stem cells. The company has three drugs in clinical trials, one of which involves injecting a gene into diseased muscle tissue to stimulate regrowth. This is the beginning of what Haseltine calls "regenerative medicine," a new era that, he says, will lead to "practical immortality - that is my concept." Haseltine doesn't mean in a few thousand years, either - more like 70 or 80. Eventually, he says, stem cells and genetics will give the human body "a transubstantiated future."
US Navy Commander Shaun Jones manages advanced biotech research programs for Darpa, which has a keen interest in technologies that can lead to new types of tissue or industrial-scale biological manufacturing of weapons.
Last spring Jones organized a meeting called NextMed 2 for SmithKline Beecham and the futurism-oriented Global Business Network. He believes seemingly diverse theories and innovations regarding aging are rapidly forming a grand, unified theory of human biology.
Whoever harnesses life-extension Technology first will reap the greatest reward in human history - wealth on the scale of the entire information age.
"Human longevity is an issue of convergence," he says. "Human genomics, C. elegans, plant genomics - you have an enormous number of these explorations without mastery. But all of it will converge." This situation, he says, created a consensus at NextMed 2. Which is? "That our generation," he says, "may be the last to have to accept death and taxes as inevitable."
As the chief scientific officer at Geron Corporation - one of the hottest biotech firms in the country - Calvin Harley is at the epicenter of this convergence. Harley has spent his entire adult life thinking about why people die. Now he occupies an office at Geron headquarters, a couple of buildings near Highway 101 in Menlo Park, California, where he continues to think about death and how to prevent it.
Harley is taking a holistic approach to the aging issue. Rather than focusing on individual aging genes or groups of genes, researchers at Geron are addressing other aging mechanisms, specifically telomeres and telomerase, the enzyme that keeps telomeres intact.
First proposed by a Russian theoretician in the 1970s, the telomere theory of cell aging postulates that these small structures of repeated DNA bases at the ends of chromosomes behave a bit like pencils in a sharpener. Each time a cell divides, the theory goes, a little more telomere data gets shaved off, until the telomeres become so short that the cell can no longer divide. Cells then become senescent - not quite dying, but not dividing either - simply idling and pouring toxic wastes into surrounding tissues. Telomeres act as an aging clock, the theory says, but telomerase can prevent them from shortening, thereby making cells immortal.
Geron's immediate commercial goal is to use telomere research in the detection and treatment of cancer. Most tumor cells, which divide indefinitely, produce telomerase. Locating telomerase-rich sites might be a way to locate developing cancers. Switching telomerase off through gene therapy might stop cancer from growing.
Harley is slight, fit, balding, intense, and reticent - a classic science guy. He works in labs stuffed to the ceiling with beakers, bottles, flasks, test tubes, chemicals, incubators, and gene sequencers. Among the sparse decorations in his office is a framed poster of Salvador Dalý's The Persistence of Memory. The artist's melting clocks, Harley explains, remind him of "the flexibility of time and possibly being able to manipulate the clock. It obviously has some significance to me and what I do in science."
Harley thinks that research is gaining on the secrets of aging, secrets he has wanted to unlock since his high school days in Ontario, Canada, when he puzzled over a paradox: How can an 80-year-old man use 80-year-old DNA in 80-year-old cells to father a baby whose cells are fresh as a daisy?
The answer, Harley thinks, lies in telomeres and telomerase. New research by Geron and others shows that telomerase can impart cell immortality - just as it does in an 80-year-old man's sperm, which produces telomerase naturally. And telomerase can do this in other cells - without, as some have feared, pushing those cells to become cancerous.
Geron's scientists believe that controlling the production of telomerase will prove useful not only in treating cancer, but also in slowing down human aging. Normal, noncancerous cells with a switched-on telomerase gene don't turn cancerous but instead divide properly. They don't go senescent, either, nor do they degrade surrounding tissue. Keep the telomerase going, and you keep your cells young, which keeps tissues young, which keeps people young.
"We are all born young," Harley says. "There is a capacity to have an immortal propagation of cells. The way we have evolved is to go from germline to germline, with our somas the dead-end carriers. But that is not inevitable."
In other words, people don't have to die.
Telomerase's ability to immortalize cells was a factor in Geron's decision last May to purchase Roslin Bio-Med - the people who brought us Dolly the sheep - thereby expanding into the other alluring branch of life-extension science: stem cells. Pluripotent stem cells may be the most promising avenue in longevity research because they can become any kind of tissue in the body. The ability to direct these cells' development and make them genetically identical to any patient's cells through cloning technology is leading to an era in which labs will custom-produce tissues and entire organs for transplantation - without fear of rejection.
The 80-year-old man in Harley's example can help create a baby not only because his sperm is kept immortal with telomerase but because a sperm cell's DNA gets reprogrammed after it joins an egg. The DNA is told to start over. The same process occurs in nuclear transfer, the technique that spawned Dolly.
In this arena, Geron faces serious competition from its departed founder, Michael West, president of a Worcester, Massachusetts, company called Advanced Cell Technology. Like Roslin Bio-Med, ACT is a cloning operation. It recently entered into a $10 million collaborative agreement with Genzyme Transgenics to use nuclear transfer to create a herd of cows that will produce human serum albumin, used to increase blood volume in surgery patients. ACT also hopes to manufacture transplantable human tissues. West thinks that with these and other emerging technologies, "depending on resources applied, there is no limit to the life span of human beings by 2099."
ACT has already repeated the early stages of the Dolly experiment on people by knitting a somatic cell from an adult human into an egg cell (in this case, a cow's) that had been emptied of its own genetic material. In that experiment, chemical signals hit the human DNA and told the cell to reset its clock. Had the resulting embryo been implanted into a woman's uterus, a human clone might have resulted.
Manufacturing pluripotent stem cells would have been that embryo's first order of business. It would have nestled the stem cells into a packet called a blastocyst. There, these cells would await chemical signals to switch genes on and off, dividing them into three branches: endoderm stems to form the gut organs; mesoderm stems to form cartilage, bone, and muscle; and ectoderm stems to form the nervous system. Other chemical signals would tell the DNA of these branched stems to produce more specific tissues - a liver, for example, rather than a pancreas. Some stem cells stop differentiating and enter a kind of on-deck circle to await further instruction. Hematopoietic stems, for instance, can respond to need by forming any of various types of blood cells.
In November 1998, a Geron team led by University of Wisconsin biologist James Thompson announced that it had derived and maintained human pluripotent stem cells in culture. In other words, it had produced the raw material for all types of human tissue.
"The real goal is to use a patient's own cells to make stem cells," says Harley. "That's the reason we acquired Roslin. They had the patents on this to create a fully competent embryo from an adult body cell. They reprogrammed it back to the embryonic state." From that state, Geron or ACT or some other firm could harvest pluripotent stem cells with a patient's own DNA from the blastocyst, grow them, and direct them to differentiate into any body tissue.
Pluripotent stem cells are immortal: They don't suffer telomere loss, and they constantly produce telomerase. But the moment stem cells begin to differentiate, they become mortal. Altering the gene for telomerase production - leaving it switched on - could make tissue cells immortal, too. Tissues that exactly matched their recipients' could be grown and transplanted, then stay young forever.
"We are close to transferring the immortal characteristics of germ cells to our bodies and essentially eliminating aging," says West. "That sounds spectacular, but I believe those are the facts."
Before that happens, someone has to decode the chemical signals that tell stem cells to differentiate into specific tissues - an outcome, William Haseltine says, that Human Genome Sciences is pursuing. Other labs across the country have already made progress. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine have directed the stem cells of mice to make neurons. Other labs are trying to direct human stem cells to make heart cells. Heart-attack victims could soon receive tissue patches to repair damaged heart muscle, and because the patches will contain the patients' own DNA (thanks to nuclear transfer), their bodies won't reject them.
West, Haseltine, and Harley all agree that the ethically charged practice of harvesting stem cells from embryos will eventually become unnecessary. Once the proper signals have been decoded, our own cells will be reprogrammed back to stems, then programmed anew to become whatever tissue we need.
Patches are just the beginning. "I would be shocked if in 50 years we weren't able to build 3-D structures on scales useful for more complex tissues and the rudiments of organ systems," says Donald Ingber, a Harvard Medical School professor and a member of MIT's Center for Biomedical Engineering.
Ingber has started his own company, Molecular Geodesics, to model the architecture that could make such tissue and organ replacements possible. He hopes to use the basic structure of tension and flexibility underlying cells and tissues to create a kind of topiary model on which to grow new tissues. A team at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego is already using 3-D collagen architecture to grow new pancreatic islets for diabetes patients. The first transplants should happen in three to five years.
If Ingber is right, we'll be able to check ourselves in for an overhaul late in life. Our new organs will be manufactured the way Ford makes crankshafts. They will have telomerase permanently switched on for eternal youth. In this way, says Haseltine, our bodies will perpetually renew themselves.
In fact, why can't they improve? "If you can figure out ways to enhance the architecture," Ingber argues, "you should get enhanced properties, like slowing aging or tissues with functions they never had before. We must start now to get there, and what we are doing now is leading in that direction."
If you want to meet a potential early adopter of these revolutionary changes, look no further than Natasha Vita-More. She and husband Max More are middle-aged - and they already spend long hours pumping iron and swallowing supplements to try to stop the aging process. If all else fails, they've also signed up for cryonic preservation. This may smack of self-obsession to some, but Vita-More says she and More are simply in the avant-garde, doing what they can in anticipation of the day immortality finally does arrive. She thinks it will come in time to save her, and that she'll live to see "the body as art usurping other forms of art."
"I love fashion," Vita-More says. "Our bodies will be the next fashion statement; we will design them in all sorts of interesting combinations of texture, colors, tones, and luminosity."
Design a body? It may be possible. "I can do anything," Kevin Montgomery boasts. "We are unlimited by the constraints of the real world." Montgomery is a computer engineer, and he's telling me this amid a tangle of duct-taped wires and computer guts in a Stanford University basement. This unimpressive space houses the National Biocomputation Center, a NASA-sponsored research center that may help bring on the sort of revolution in surgery - especially plastic surgery - that could someday fulfill Vita-More's dreams.
NASA created the center because it foresees a day when astronauts will journey to Mars. That's a long trip, and accommodations most likely will be too spartan and cramped to bring along a flight surgeon. Would it be possible, NASA wondered, to quantify medical procedures into a virtual reality program? And could an astronaut briefed with a few medical basics use such a program to act as doctor aboard a Mars flight?
Regardless of the Mars mission's fate, Montgomery and the National Biocomputation Center are already providing useful research fallout in the realm of plastic surgery. After fiddling with his switches and wires, Montgomery boots up a program that shows how his virtual reality simulations were used to reconstruct the face of a young boy whose features were ravaged by cancer. Montgomery's simulations, based on medical-imaging data, let surgeons picture exactly how the bone structure looks, how changes in soft tissue will fit over the bones, and how the alterations will appear after surgery. Because doctors know in advance what to expect, says Montgomery, actual surgeries are performed much faster and, more important, with better results.
With increased computing power, the center will soon be able to work on full faces, and Montgomery predicts whole-body design will arrive in about 25 years - just in time, perhaps, for a seventysomething like Natasha Vita-More to get the ultimate soma-lift.
The technology could even now allow plastic surgeons to custom-design cosmetic implants. Inside of two decades, Haseltine believes, implants will seem primitive. The same convergence of stem-cell, cellular-immortality, and genetic-engineering technologies that will enable us to remachine ourselves with youthful organs will also eliminate implants. We will grow our own augmentations in the same way we'll grow new livers. Our augmentations will be us. They will be real. And, thanks to CAD resources like Montgomery's, they will be anything we want them to be.
Breast augmentations will come from stem cells directed with chemical signals and grown in an artificial framework. No more "rock-hard-boob syndrome, but nice, soft, fleshy boobs," says William Haseltine. "All the body can be restructured. You can look like you want, have whatever color you want."
If stem cells will grow into any shape an architectural frame dictates, any number of variations will become possible - including those never seen on any creature before - realizing Vita-More's vision of the body as canvas. With virtually any body augmentation available, including the merging of biological and nonbiological forms, the very idea of beauty may morph.
"You will be able to annotate your body in a biological way that will be changeable," says Darpa's Shaun Jones. "We will use new forms of self-expression in terms of our bodies. The equivalents of tattoos and piercings in the cosmetic constellation will clearly come. Xenogenetic engineering, the manipulation of the firewalls that exist between species, may be possible"
"There is a huge future in biological body manipulations - oh, yeah," agrees UC Irvine's Michael Rose. "That's gonna happen. The future is now, with respect to that."
Vita-More has a few changes in mind. "Maybe I can look like a Renaissance painting for a while, or maybe a pointillist image, or maybe Cubist, like a Picasso," she says. "I'm a bodybuilder, so I love sculpting muscle. Muscle is gorgeous, and our future bodies will have streamlined muscles in all sorts of interesting shapes - new types of limbs, new types of carved skeletal structures."
It's conceivable that a significant number of people (though certainly not Extropians) will choose not to have these enhancements. Such people (Vita-More refers to them as "humanish - you know, like Amish") will elect to age and stick with whatever cards nature and their environment have dealt them.
Of course, it's also possible that none of these miracles will come to pass. Details are still up for grabs. Debate rages. Some longevity researchers argue forcefully that immortality remains science fiction. They refer to people like Haseltine with a wink and a nod, calling him "a 'Big Science' guy."
But Jones thinks dramatic innovations are inevitable: "We may be at the cusp of an inflection point. 'Bio' may be the prefix for the next age: bioagricultural, bioindustrial, bioinformational. You could argue that we have gone through that inflection point."
As I'm sitting in Calvin Harley's office at Geron, it occurs to me that he is one of the gatekeepers of this inflection point. So I want to press him, ask him about ultrahumans and immortality. But Harley lacks Vita-More's gift for speculation. He is an extremely serious guy. He has reports to look over and a budget to consider. He also has a board of directors and stockholders to please, and they want marketable products soon, not talk about superboobs and polymer skin - and certainly not about immortality.
But when I ask him what he really thinks about the potential of the work going on in Geron's labs and in labs worldwide, even he allows himself some amazement.
"Fifty years ago, the structure of DNA wasn't even known," Harley says. "Today we can manipulate it and use it for everything from engineering better foods to treating genetic disorders and tissue engineering. And the ability to use pluripotent stem cells is just starting. In 50 years we'll be doing things hard to even imagine today."
Then, for the first time since I've met him, Harley smiles.