Samuel H. Sternberg

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A decade ago, Freeman Dyson wrote “Our Biotech Future” for New York Review of Books, envisioning a not-so-far-off time when garages wouldn’t be hatching just start-ups but new life forms. He said this:

Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.

Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora. The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur. These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious.

If domestication of biotechnology is the wave of the future, five important questions need to be answered. First, can it be stopped? Second, ought it to be stopped? Third, if stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits that our society must impose on it? Fourth, how should the limits be decided? Fifth, how should the limits be enforced, nationally and internationally? I do not attempt to answer these questions here. I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers.•

In the ten years since, we haven’t gotten to the point of “domesticated biotechnology” on a wide scale, but CRISPR technology has now brought the possibilities at least to the laboratory. This new tool means that our genetic “encyclopedia” can not only be read but edited, reordered, erased. Not being an expert on the topic, I would assume such a process will have obstacles, at least initially, which may slow its progress, but it provides a new path forward, and regardless of what we may declare, it’s one we will head down sooner than later. Competition among nations almost demands a brisk walk–a headlong rush.

What awaits us at the other end? Even if we’re very careful–not a default human trait, especially with a process that will be decentralized–there will be immensely thorny ethical questions to be addressed. Never before has a system promised so much good and ill simultaneously. It may mean freedom from crippling illness and the emergence of a new type of mass terrorism–genocide, even. Days of miracle and wonders, indeed.

The NYRB has since revisited the topic many times, including the latest issue’s smart piece by zoologist Matthew Cobb, which reviews a slate of new titles on the topic, including A Crack in Creation, co-authored by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg, which I mentioned last week. “We cannot unlearn what we have discovered,” the critic acknowledges, before suggesting some preemptive strikes against science run amok which may or may not prove adequate should we act on them.

An excerpt:

The possibilities of CRISPR are immense. If you know a DNA sequence from a given organism, you can chop it up, delete it, and change it at will, much like what a word-processing program can do with texts. You can even use CRISPR to introduce additional control elements—for example to engineer a gene so that it is activated by light stimulation. In experimental organisms this can provide an extraordinary degree of control in studies of gene function, enabling scientists to explore the consequences of gene expression at a particular moment in the organism’s life or in a particular environment.

There appear to be few limits to how CRISPR might be used. One is technical: it can be difficult to deliver the specially constructed CRISPR DNA sequences to specific cells in order to change their genes. But a larger and more intractable concern is ethical: Where and when should this technology be used? In 2016, the power of gene editing and the relative ease of its application led James Clapper, President Obama’s director of national intelligence, to describe CRISPRas a weapon of mass destruction. Well-meaning biohackers are already selling kits over the Internet that enable anyone with high school biology to edit the genes of bacteria. The plotline of a techno-thriller may be writing itself in real time. …

Already in the early days of her research, Doudna seems to have been haunted by the implications of her work—she describes a disturbing dream in which Hitler keenly asked her to explain the technique to him. Over the last couple of years, following meetings with patients suffering from genetic diseases, Doudna has shifted her position, and now feels that it would be unethical to legally forbid a family to, say, remove a defective portion of the gene that causes Huntington’s disease from an embryo, which otherwise would grow into an adult doomed to a horrible death.

Like many scientists and the vast majority of the general public, Doudna remains hostile to changing the germline in an attempt to make humans smarter, more beautiful, or stronger, but she recognizes that it is extremely difficult to draw a line between remedial action and enhancement. Reassuringly, both A Crack in Creation and DNA Is Not Destiny show that these eugenic fantasies will not succeed—such characteristics are highly complex, and to the extent that they have a genetic component, it is encoded by a large number of genes each of which has a very small effect, and which interact in unknown ways. We are not on the verge of the creation of a CRISPR master race.

Nevertheless, Doudna does accept that there is a danger that the new technology will “transcribe our societies’ financial inequality into our genetic code,” as the rich will be able to use it to enhance their offspring while the poor will not. Unfortunately, her only solution is to suggest that we should start planning for international guidelines governing germline gene editing, with researchers and lawmakers (the public are not mentioned) encouraged to find “the right balance between regulation and freedom.”•

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