Biotechnology poses ethical challenges – and we’ve been here before

Matthew Cobb is a zoologist and writer specializing in insect genetics and the history of science. Over the past decade or so, how CRISPR was discovered and applied to genetic reconstruction, he became concerned—actually afraid—of three potential applications of the technology. He’s in good company: Jennifer Doudna, who won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery and use of CRISPR, afraid of the same things. Therefore, he decided to delve into these topics, and Like Gods: A Moral History of the Genetic Age this is the result.

Summary of fears

The first thing that bothers him is the idea of ​​introducing hereditary mutations into the human genome. He is Jianqi did this with three female human embryos in China in 2018, so the three girls with the engineered mutations they will pass on to their children (if they are allowed to have them) are now about four. Their identities are withheld for their protection, but their health is presumably being monitored, and the poor girls have probably already been poked and prodded non-stop by all the medical professionals.

The second is use gene disks. They allow a gene to copy itself from one chromosome in a pair to another, so it will be passed on to almost all offspring. If this gene causes infertility, the gene drive means the extinction of the population that carries it. Gene drives have been proposed as a way to kill malaria mosquitoes and have been tested in the laboratory, but the technology has yet to be deployed in the wild.

Although eliminating malaria seems like a net good, no one is really sure what will happen to the ecosystem if we get rid of all the malaria mosquitoes. (Of course, humans have wiped out, or at least severely wiped out, entire species before…passenger pigeons, bison, eastern moose, wolves(sometimes even intentionally, but never with an awareness of the interconnectedness of everything we have now.) Another obstacle arises from the fact that the deployment of this technology depends on the informed consent of the local population, which is difficult when some local languages ​​are not I have no word for “gene”.

A third concern focuses on gain-of-function studies which produce more transmissible or pathogenic viruses in the laboratory. These studies are ostensibly being done to better understand what makes viruses more dangerous, so in an ideal world we could prepare for one to emerge naturally. Boosting studies funded by the National Institutes of Health in 2011 made the highly lethal H5N1 flu strain more transmissible, leading to a self-imposed moratorium on the research that ended with tighter regulations (in some countries). These types of research clearly have the potential to create biological weapons, and even without nefarious intent, a leak is not impossible. (It is unlikely that such work caused the COVID-19 pandemic; the evidence suggests it did jumped over to people from the wild.)

The title of the resulting book is taken from Stuart Brand “The Catalog of the Whole Earth” in which he wrote: “We are like gods and can succeed in this with equal success”. Unfortunately, not all gods are magnanimous. Or even competent, let alone good at it.

Timeout call

As a historian of science, Cobb spends most of the book putting his fears into context. One way he does this is by looking at how society dealt with the scary, potentially dangerous, and far-reaching advances in genetic manipulation that took place in the second half of the 20th century, and then comparing that to how society dealt with the terrible , the potentially dangerous and far-reaching advances in nuclear physics that have taken place in the past century.

He uses the shift in the origin story of the X-Men comics to trace how public fear of science moved from the atom to the gene. In the 1960s, the X-Men gained their mutations and accompanying powers through exposure to radiation; until the 1980s, they were the products of genetic engineering experiments by ancient alien celestials. (Check out the podcast episode “Our Opinions Are Right” at the illusion of change (if you’re wondering why and how fans put up with this modernized backstory.)

The Asilomar Conference, held in California in February 1975, is generally regarded as a paradigm of self-regulation. At the time, scientists were in the process of creating recombinant DNA technology—the ability to move genes between organisms and express essentially any gene at will in bacteria. It is surprising that in the middle of these events they decided to pause and discuss whether and how they should act. (Such shuffling of genes between species also occurs in nature, but they didn’t know it yet.) Cobb writes that “no group of scientists, other than geneticists, has ever voluntarily stopped their work because they were afraid of the consequences of what they might discover.”

But the Asilomar conference didn’t happen because geneticists are more moral than other scientists, Cobb argues; they were simply reacting to the fears of their time. Many of the young researchers who advanced genetic engineering came of scientific age in the late 1960s when they participated in university protests against the Vietnam War. Between Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Agent Orange, physicists and then chemists watched in horror as the military-industrial complex turned their research into mass death and turned the public against the enterprise of science. These fledgling molecular biologists wanted to make sure the same thing didn’t happen to them, Cobb argues.

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