Improve the world, become famous, and/or make money

NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.

–Francis Collins, Statement on NIH funding of research using gene-editing technologies in human embryos

To me, the biggest likely change in our world from CRISPR-Cas9 and other genomic editing methods won’t be in humans but in the non-humans we use the methods to modify. As it gets cheaper and easier to modify genomes, non-human genomes offer freedom from a lot of regulation, liability, and political controversy, while offering plenty of opportunities to improve the world, become famous, or make money – with combinations of all of the above.

Want to end malaria? Come up with a modified version of Aedes aegypti that can’t transmit yellow fever, dengue fever, or chikungunya viruses to humans and will outcompete and eventually eliminate the wild type. Want to make a really economical biofuel? Take an algae and modify its genome in thousands of ways to optimize it for producing hydrocarbon fuel. Want to bring back the passenger pigeon? Use CRISPR-Cas9 to modify the genomes of existing band tail pigeons to match, more or less, the genomes sequenced from specimens on the extinct passenger pigeon. What to corner the market in high-end gifts? Start playing around with horse genomes adding in bits and pieces from other species in an effort to produce actual unicorns. What to make a splash as an artist? Use CRISPR-Cas9 to make a warren of truly glow-in-the-dark rabbits.

In fact, on the same day Science published the moratorium call on-line, it published on-line an article on one very successful “gene drive” system, using CRISPR-Cas9, that could spread a chosen genetic variant very quickly through an entire population. (See the news story in the next day’s magazine here.)

It is these kinds of uses of genomic engineering that could reshape the biosphere. As the ability to make carefully engineered genomic changes becomes more widely accessible, the possibility of insufficiently controlled or considered experiments increases dramatically. And so, of course, does the chance of more controlled interventions. I would like to see much more focus on this issue, of great practical importance, instead of so much attention on the sexier issue of germline genome modification in humans.

-Hank Greely, Of Science, CRISPR-Cas9, and Asilomar

Context and links via Vox.

On a related note, over the holidays I read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) for the first time. I suggest you do the same.

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