Should we tinker with the genes of our descendants? It’s been a debate topic for half a century or more. Always an intriguing question to mull over in the comfortable absence of good ways of doing it.
Now there are good ways. Gene-editing techniques in particular make it possible to modify the next generation’s genomes, and so future generations as well. In any species. Including Homo sap. These techniques, known as germline modification, are (relatively) cheap and simple. In other species they have also been remarkably effective.
So the discussion is, suddenly, theoretical no more. We know that for sure, because lots of scientists are yelling “STOP!” Or at least “Pause!”
The latest shout comes via this week’s Science (March 20). Attention will be paid because the assembled authors are luminaries. Jennifer Doudna, an inventor of CRISPR, one of the gene-editing methodologies that have bumped this formerly hypothetical question to the top of the ToDo list. David Baltimore, Nobel laureate and former president of Cal Tech. George Church, whose Harvard lab is a hotbed of genetic innovation, including germ line gene editing–the editing of genes in sperm, eggs, and early embryos, changes that will be passed on to future generations. Bioethicists R. Alta Charo and Hank Greely.
And several other notables–including, intriguingly, Paul Berg. A Nobel laureate too, Berg was an organizer of the historic 1975 Asilomar conference, which brought together scores of scientists and a few lawyers to draft guidelines for dealing with the (then) brand-new prospect of being able to directly modify genomes. At that point, the potential risks were unknown.
Asilomar is a fine analogy for what scientists are calling for now. Some kind of summit meeting. Some kind of guidelines. Some kind of policy. And, faint hope, some way of making it apply to labs all over the world.
Recalling what Berg said in a 2008 look back at Asilomar reveals what the new paper is about: “[T]here is a lesson in Asilomar for all of science: the best way to respond to concerns created by emerging knowledge or early-stage technologies is for scientists from publicly-funded institutions to find common cause with the wider public about the best way to regulate — as early as possible. Once scientists from corporations begin to dominate the research enterprise, it will simply be too late.”
In this case, though, scientists from private enterprise are also alarmed, writing last week in Nature to urge a research moratorium. I covered that development, and a lot of background on current efforts at human germline genetic engineering, in my weekly post at the Genetic Literacy Project for last Tuesday (March 17). Scientists in China, it is rumored, have already submitted papers reporting success with modifying the germlines of early human embryos.
Gretchen Vogel describes differences between the commentaries in Nature and Science, and names other concerned scientific groups, in what I think is an open-access piece at Science. She quotes Church on human germ line gene editing, “What is the scenario that we’re actually worried about? That it won’t work well enough? Or that it will work too well?”
Seems pretty obvious to me. Both.
Tabitha Powledge is an award-winning long-time science journalist, book author, and media critic. On Science Blogs is her weekly look at the craft and content of science blogging.