Biotechnology creates ethical concerns - and we've been here before

Biotechnology creates ethical concerns – and we’ve been here before

Matthew Cobb is a zoologist and author whose background is in insect genetics and the history of science. Over the past decade, as CRISPR has been discovered and applied to gene remodeling, there have become concerns — in fact, fears — about three potential applications for the technology. He’s in good company: Jennifer Doudna, who won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering and exploiting CRISPR, is afraid of the same things. He therefore decided to go deeper into these subjects, and As Gods: A Moral History of the Genetic Age is the result.

Summarize the fears

The first of his concerns is the idea of ​​introducing hereditary mutations into the human genome. He Jianqui did this to three human female embryos in China in 2018, so the three girls with the artificial mutations they will pass on to their children (if allowed to have any) are about four years old now. Their identities are classified for protection, but their health is presumably monitored, and the poor girls have probably already been pushed and pushed endlessly by every type of medical specialist there is.

The second is the use of gene drives. These allow a gene to copy itself from one chromosome from one pair to another so that it is passed on to almost all descendants. If this gene causes infertility, the gene drive drives the extinction of the population that carries it. Gene drives have been proposed as a way to eradicate malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and they have been tested in the lab, but the technology has yet to be deployed in the wild.

Although eliminating malaria seems like an unmixed good, no one really knows what would happen to an ecosystem if we got rid of all malaria-carrying mosquitoes. (Of course, humans have already eliminated or at least severely depleted entire species – homing pigeons, bison, eastern elk, wolves – sometimes even on purpose, but never with the awareness of the interconnectedness of all things we have now.) Another barrier is that the deployment of this technology relies on the informed consent of the local population, which is difficult when some local languages ​​do not have a word for “gene”.

The third concern focuses on gain-of-function studies that create more transmissible or pathogenic viruses in a lab. These studies are supposed to be done to better understand what makes viruses more dangerous, so in an ideal world, we could prepare for the possibility of a virus occurring naturally. Gain-of-function studies funded by the National Institutes of Health and performed in 2011 made the very deadly strain of H5N1 flu more transmissible, leading to a self-imposed research moratorium that ended in more regulations. strict (in some countries). These types of studies obviously have the potential to create bioweapons, and even without malicious intent, leaks are not impossible. (This type of work is unlikely to have caused the COVID-19 pandemic; evidence suggests it was transmitted to humans from wildlife.)

The title of the resulting book is taken from Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog”, in which he writes, “We are like gods and might as well become good.” Alas, not all gods are magnanimous. Or even competent, much less good at it.

Calling a timeout

As a historian of science, Cobb spends much of the book putting his fears into context. It does this by examining, among other things, how society dealt with the frightening, potentially dangerous, and far-reaching advances in genetic manipulation that occurred in the second half of the 20th century, and then comparing them to how society handled the frightening, potentially dangerous advances. dangerous and far-reaching advances in nuclear physics that occurred in the first half.

It uses the change in the origin story in the X-Men comics to trace how public fears about science shifted from atom to gene. In the 1960s, the X-Men gained their mutations and accompanying powers through radiation exposure; in the 1980s, they were the product of genetic engineering experiments carried out by the extraterrestrial Celestials of long ago. (Check out the “Our Opinions Are Correct” podcast episode on The Illusion of Change if you’re curious about why and how fans tolerated this modernized backstory.)

The Asilomar conference, held in California in February 1975, is generally presented as a paradigm of self-regulation. At the time, scientists were establishing recombinant DNA technology, the ability to move genes between organisms and express a given gene essentially at will in bacteria. It is amazing that in the midst of these developments they decided to stop and debate if and how they should proceed. (This mixing of genes between species also occurs in nature, but they didn’t know it yet.) Cobb writes that “no group of scientists, except geneticists, has ever voluntarily discontinued their work because he feared the consequences of what he might do”. discover.”

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

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