June 23, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich

CRISPR, unicorns and responsible language use

I was looking through my twitter timeline on 12 June, when I came cross a tweet by Dietram Scheufele which said “’bend nature to our will.’ #CRISPR frame in new #Doudna book might resonate differently across audiences […] #scicomm”. The tweet made reference to an article by Sharon Begley in STAT News about Jennifer Doudna’s new book, co-authored with Samuel Sternberg, A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution, in which they reportedly write that it “won’t be long before CRISPR allows us to bend nature to our will”. I became curious about this new book and its grand claim.

The book: publicity and reactions

On 16 June, Jennifer Doudna, a pioneer in a new way of modifying or ‘editing’ genes called CRISPR Cas9, came to the UK to talk with Adam Rutherford about her new book at a Hay Festival event held at the Royal Society. CRISPR Cas9 is based on exploiting the way that bacteria snip out parts of an invading virus’s DNA “and keep a bit of it behind to help them recognise and defend against the virus next time it attack”. Scientists, like Doudna, have “adapted this system so that it could be used in other cells from animals, including mice and humans”.

The blurb for the event (which I could unfortunately not attend) says: “’A Crack In Creation’ also asks us to consider what our new-found power means: how do we enjoy its unprecedented benefits while avoiding its equally unprecedented dangers? As Doudna argues, every member of our species is implicated in the answers to these questions. Somehow we must consider and act together. The future of humankind – and of all life on Earth – is at stake. This book is an essential guide to the path that now lies ahead.” (From what I can ascertain, unicorns were not mentioned at the event)

It appears that Jennifer Doudna wants to stimulate public debate about this new technique for genetic manipulation or gene or genome editing. This is a great example of what some call ‘upstream’ engagement with an emerging technology by one of its founders. This is also an example of what people would now call responsible innovation. As one reviewer of her book, Peter Forbes, says: ”It’s always difficult when something like this [gene editing] happens to sort the hope from the hype, but anticipation is now intense. Doudna does, though, sound many notes of caution.”

Another review of Doudna’s book by Nathaniel Comfort, is a little bit more critical and says: “Rather than guiding us through the ethical thickets of precision genetic engineering, or providing a candid, warts-and-all look at one of the great scientists of our time, the book mainly polishes her ‘good scientist’ image and rationalizes the unfettered self-direction of human evolution, within liberal bounds of safety, efficacy and individual choice.” I became more and more curious.

Unicorns, dragons and flying pigs

Let’s get back to the article mentioned in the tweet by Scheufele. After reading that tweet, I read the article by Sharon Begley for STAT news entitled, intriguingly, “CRISPR pioneer Doudna envisions a world of woolly mammoths and unicorns”. We are told that: “This Doudna doesn’t hold back. We are ‘on the cusp of a new age in genetic engineering and biological mastery,’ she and Sternberg write, dangling the prospect of ‘life-changing treatments’ and ‘lifesaving cures.’ She says she is ‘not kidding’ that CRISPR could bring about ‘woolly mammoths, winged lizards, and unicorns. … It won’t be long before CRISPR allows us to bend nature to our will.’”

Wow, I thought, these are some claims. I also asked myself whether this is really how one sorts “the hope from the hype”? And I wondered whether and how the unicorns were picked up by other news articles reporting on the book (they were not mentioned in the Forbes and the Comfort reviews).

I found an article for CBC radio that notes: “Imagine a world where genetic diseases can be edited and cured, where pigs can be ‘humanized’ to use their organs for transplants in people — and where we might even run into unicorns or winged dragons.”

Here lizards have turned into dragons. Interestingly, dragons had been discussed in the context of gene editing, but one of the co-authors of the book had intimated that they would not be created: “Dr Sam Sternberg – formerly of the University of California’s Doudna Lab, which pioneered work with CRISPR-CAS9 – said […] he is not hopeful genetic engineers could ever cross the Rubicon to create dragons.” (BBC interview, 3 January, 2016)

The other article appeared in The Daily Beast and was entitled “New DNA tech creating unicorns and curing cancer for real”. Unicorns and dragons are here joined by yet another mythical creature: “Scientists say that CRISPR-Cas9 may soon allow them to perform miraculous fixes to eliminate or alter mutations that cause everything from some cancers to Parkinson’s disease. More whimsically, the technology could be used to create, say, a unicorn, or a pig with wings; though it’s unlikely they could make swine fly.” Lizards have turned into flying pigs….

Unicorns in context

I was now thoroughly hooked; I ordered the paperback edition of the book; and read it. It is a breezy and enjoyable account of the whirl-wind in which Jennifer Doudna found herself after the discovery of CRISPR Cas9, a new way to target and edit genes.

This rather personal account of excitement and collaborations is interspersed with cautious reflections on the social and ethical implications of CRISPR, but also with references to mastery (“over the code of life”, p. 113; “to rewrite the very molecules of life anyway we wish”, p. 119) and control (chapter 4 is called “Command and Control” echoing the subtitle of the book: “The New Power to Control Evolution”). Control and caution jostle with each other.

I also found the unicorns. They make their appearance in chapter 5 entitled “The CRISPR menagerie” (paperback, p. 117). Here is the quote that got some people so excited: “Within a few decades, we might well have genetically engineered pigs that can serve as human organ donors – but we could also have wooly mammoths, winged lizards and unicorns. No I am not kidding.”

The next paragraph goes on to say: “It amazes me to realize that we are on the cusp of a new era in the history of life on earth – an age in which humans exercise an unprecedented level of control over the genetic composition of the species that co-inhabit our planet. I won’t be long before CRISPR allows us to bend nature to our will in the way that humans have dreamed of since pre-history”. We are back to the tweet that set me off in chase of unicorns.

I couple of pages later the book’s sometimes breakneck foray into a new CRISPR world populated by novel plants and animals, including unicorns, is somewhat slowed down by a note of caution: “We have a responsibility to consider the ramifications in advance and to engage in a global, public, and inclusive conversation about how to best harness gene editing in the natural world, before it’s too late.” This is a call for ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ or RRI.

Unicorns and responsible language use

A Crack in Creation has, it seems, three aims: firstly and mostly to convey the excitement of CRISPR; secondly to point out emerging risks (especially with relation to germline editing); and thirdly to stimulate public debate. My question is: are unicorns the right way to go about stimulating this debate?

I have written quite a few posts about CRISPR, some more about responsible innovation, and some others where I try to include responsible language use in the RRI agenda. I have also written an article with Carmen McLeod entitled “The dilemma of raising awareness responsibly”. The book certainly exposes this dilemma.

Viewed from the perspective of RRI and responsible language use, A Crack in Creation might therefore not only stimulate public debate about CRISPR; it might also stimulate debate about responsible language use. As we have seen, unicorns grab public and media attention; but are they good examples of responsible language use, especially since they can easily morph into flying pigs?

Master builders

This episode in the history of gene editing and public engagement reminded me of the early days of nanotechnology, where excitement mingled with concern and public discussion. At the time (around 2003/2004), a former colleague of mine, José López wrote about the trope of the master builder which he saw running through some of the early nanotech discourses, a trope that is also commonly used in science fiction. In an interview he pointed out:

“’Looking at science fiction helps us understand how we talk about nanotechnology. Science fiction usually relies on revolutionary technology or a major event to define how society works. Nanotechnology gets talked about like that—some argue that it will change everything,’ López says. This world-changing technology or event is called a novum—time travel and parallel universes are classic examples. Science fiction then typically includes a master builder who interacts with the novum and drives the story line. ‘With this mindset, we perceive nanotechnology—and the scientists driving it, the master builders— as a way to reconstruct a new world,’ López says. ‘We’re speaking the language of hubris to think we can control the future in this way. We have to remember that nanotechnology is still in its infancy.’”

This is perhaps something we should reflect on in all the excitement and promise surrounding gene editing today, as it has implications for science, society and science communication.

PS: Matthew Cobb has just published a review of Crack in Creation in the New York Review of Books

And here is one by Jerry Coyne; and one by Adam Rutherford; and one by Henry Greely.

Image: A unicorn, woodcut after C. Gessner, 1551, Wikimedia Commons




Posted in biotechnologyresponsible innovationsynthetic biology