He's like Indiana Jones in a lab coat: Author James Rollins takes deep dives when he's investigating the science that weaves throughout his government espionage thrillers. And with his latest novel, "The Bone Labyrinth" (William Morrow, 2015), his research brought him face-to-face with the inner workings of genetic engineering, bizarre hybrid animals and superhumans.
In "The Bone Labyrinth," released this week, an archaeologist makes a shocking skeleton discovery in a subterranean Catholic chapel. The trail of the discovery leads Rollins' characters from the Vatican to the high Andes, where they search for the legendary sunken subcontinent of Atlantis. All the while, the original discovery in the chapel reverberates back at high-tech genetic research labs in Atlanta and Beijing, where Chinese scientists try to steal the skeleton. [Science Fact or Fiction? 20 Imaginary Worlds]
Rollins, who has a Ph.D. in veterinary medicine, took some time to talk about genetic engineering, the future of humanity and the ethical limits of science.
(This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.)
Live Science: A quote from "The Bone Labyrinth" reads, "Research today has become more about seeing if something can be done versus judging if it should. It's knowledge for the sake of knowledge, regardless of the impact on the world." Is that you speaking? Is that what you personally believe?
James Rollins: Yes, I believe that. I think sometimes, the reach of science is faster than its capacity to grasp. Genetic engineering is changing the world so fast right now. The CRISPR-Cas9 technique can allow us to pluck a single DNA unit out and replace it with great precision. And one of the people I interviewed in the research for this book told me that we now have the ability to do germline editing, where anyone with a basic biology degree and familiarity with embryos can alter an embryo pretty easily. And that's something that's relatively new. It's just in the last five to 10 years that that's been developed.
Live Science: Things like this are often a double-edged sword. What's the upside of genetic engineering?
Rollins: Well, one side of the coin is that this research has great benefits. Even creating these, basically, chimeras [or animals created from the genetic material of other species], results in better animal models for studying diseases. There's research where mice are given human tumors so we can study cancer; there are rats with human immune systems that can help in AIDS research. And some groups are looking at growing human organs in animals to help more closely match patients that need transplants [with donors].
Live Science: What's the downside of creating hybrid animals?
Rollins: So, these hybrids do have a benefit, but when do we get down the slippery slope to eugenics? One of the things I encountered in doing research for this book was that the International Olympic Committee is questioning how to deal with people who may be genetically engineering athletes for enhancements. When do we become nonhuman? [6 Extinct Animals That Could Be Brought Back to Life]
Just this September, the National Institutes of Health put a moratorium on using human stem cells to create partly human creatures, and there are prominent scientists who feel this interferes with a promising field of research at a crucial moment. So the question then becomes, if the U.S. bans it and other countries don't, do we lose ground?
Live Science: Is there another "key" out there that you fear, something where you think, "Man, when science finally figures out X, Pandora's box will open?"
Rollins: We're at that cusp right now. One of the topics that I raise in this book is that we're at the point where we could engineer the perfect baby. George Church [a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School], one of the people I was researching for this book, basically found a handful of about 10 genes that are in the human population right now that, effectively, give people extraordinary abilities when they're born with them. There's a gene present in certain individuals that makes your bones so hard that they can break surgical drills. There's another that reduces susceptibility to heart disease significantly. There's another gene that makes you almost invulnerable to Alzheimer's and dementia, so you can remain sharp until a very, very advanced age. These are just the "better" genes, so maybe we can create a baby that will not break his bones, and will never have heart disease or dementia. We can, literally, at this point, do that. So … do we do that? Do we create "levels" of humans, some of which would truly be superior to others?
Live Science: This sounds like "Brave New World" at the doorstep. Aldous Huxley is knocking.
Rollins: Right, because we're theoretically talking about creating superenhanced individuals. And it's not like this is 10 years, 15 years down the line; people [may be able to] start doing this already.
Live Science: Getting back strictly to the animal end — and maybe this is too colloquial — but how close are we to "Jurassic Park"?
Rollins: I don't know if we can create dinosaurs from scratch at this point. But I did some research for my previous novel, "The Sixth Extinction" [William Morrow, 2015] about recreating extinct species. There's actually a term for it — "de-extinction" — where you're taking the DNA of an animal closely related and seeing if you can tweak it enough to recreate the extinct species. Some people are trying it with an elephant to recreate the woolly mammoth. There are people trying to recreate the aurochs, an extinct form of cattle. So we're getting close. But I think dinosaurs are significantly down the pike at this point. [Real-Life 'Jurassic World' Dinos May Be 10 Years Off, Scientist Says]
Live Science: We spoke two years ago, when "The Eye of God" [Harper, 2014] came out, and you had a character with an implanted RFID chip. You talked about getting magnetic implants in your fingertips yourself. You were totally onboard with that kind of "transhuman" movement. What's the difference here with genetic engineering in your new novel, and where do you draw the line?
Rollins: I still want to do the magnetic fingertips! That would be so cool! But I draw the line at introducing genes into the human population that are going to continue in the population, [and] potentially contaminate the gene pool. With the transhumans … you can take the magnets out. And if you have a kid, they're not going to be born with magnetic fingers. I draw the line at germline editing, taking sperm and ova and introducing either nonhuman elements or elements that are considered to be "better."
Now, "better" sounds better, but we never know where that goes. Look what happened when the Chinese starting limiting families to only one child, [a policy that has ended]. The preference was to have a male child, so they were aborting a lot of female children. How that pays off a generation down the line, we do not know. Human nature can be scary, and human wisdom is not complete. We may make choices that are not wise. If we have access to start prebuilding superhumans, with enhanced bones and all the features we want, I fear that would only be for selected people. There's a cost to everything.
Live Science: Many people lose sleep at night worrying about next month's mortgage or their child's ball game. Do issues like this keep you up at night?
Rollins: Ultimately, I'm an optimist. I think that lines will be drawn. The fact that in September, the NIH did that moratorium on human stem cells in nonhuman creatures is a good pullback. And since I finished writing this book, the NIH also banned research on great apes. So people are aware. I think, ultimately, we do learn as a species. We get better. My fear is, maybe a lab somewhere in a foreign country where they're not guided by regulations or ethics [will cross the line]. But I'm enough of an optimist that I can sleep at night.