A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The author is one of the scientists who helped invent the CRISPR tool that makes possible easy gene editing. The first half of the book gives the history of how the tool was discovered and improved. That part is quite technical. I found it interesting, but many will find it too difficult. It is also quite repetitive. How many times do we need to be told that scientists have used gene editing to create micropigs or that the tool can be used to find treatments for muscular dystrophy? For those not into the hard science, though, you can skip directly to Part II where the complex ethical and moral issues are discussed. The tool can be used to cure disease and to feed starving populations. Crops are already being made more resistant to pests or diseases, thus allowing for crops that have more nutritional value and which do not require pesticides, fungicides or other harmful chemicals, or at least not in the same volume as before. The author makes a compelling case for the value of gene editing and indeed for GMO foods, which are actually healthier both for the consumer and the environment than traditionally farmed foods, not to mention cheaper, yet 60% of Americans think they are somehow harmful or at least less desirable than traditional farming methods.
However, the CRISPR tool can also be used to modify the human genome. For now that is only being done therapeutically in somatic cells, i.e. ones that are not involved in reproduction. The genetic changes are only for an affected individual who is suffering from a genetic disease. But the technology can be used to modify egg and sperm cells’ DNA, either for good, such as repairing a defective gene that would have led to a horrible heritable disease in the child, or, in theory at least, to “designer babies” or some Nazi-inspired eugenics movement. Human embryos have been modified in the lab, although only non-viable triploid embryos were used. The author does an outstanding job of showing the different viewpoints and the goods and bads of gene editing. Personally I side squarely with those who are plunging forward with the research. I don’t fear an onslaught of designer babies. I doubt the technology will ever be used for cosmetic reasons except perhaps in a few dozen cases a year, if that, and that’s not likely to be harmful. Much more likely, it will be able to eliminate defective genes that nature provided by its random mutations, diseases like Duchennes muscular dystrophy, sickle cell disease, and early onset Alzheimer’s. Why some people consider that a bad thing is beyond me. Even the so-called “designer babies,” i.e. modifications not done to cure a disease, aren’t likely to be Aryan master race experiments or super athletes, but severely myopic parents who “design” a child with 20-20 vision, or musician parents who “design” a child with perfect pitch. I see these as helpful for everyone and not harmful. I am more concerned with the use of the technology in a way the author does NOT discuss – as a weapon. I can foresee some dictator (e.g. Assad) dropping genetically-modified unkillable bacteria or viruses on their enemies and a worldwide pandemic beginning. We must continue responsible genetic engineering to be able to prevent or protect against those who do not have the ethical or moral compass we do.