October 28, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

CRISPR and genome editing: Real and imagined

For several years now there has been a buzz around a new advance in genomics called genome (or gene) editing. “Genome editing is the deliberate alteration of a selected DNA sequence in a living cell.” Scientists have been able to do gene editing for a while, but to find and replace any sequence in any organism relatively precisely makes CRISPR so interesting. To do this scientists exploit the natural function of a bacterial gene that encodes enzymes which can ‘cut’ DNA … but it’s, of course, more complicated than that. If you want to know more about genome editing or CRISPR I recommend two videos. Start with the one produced by the Royal Society and then make a cup of tea and watch A Capella Science sing CRISPR! Enjoy!

In 2015 CRISPR was voted science breakthrough of the year. Now, towards the end of 2016, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has published an ethical review of ‘genome editing’ from which I took the definition quoted above. In between, both CRISPR and genome editing have flourished. They have also attracted increasing attention from bioethicists and social scientists. CRISPR has not yet really entered popular culture though, as far as I can make out. But of course, the usual spectres of Brave New World, designer babies and eugenics are ever present. I’ll first say a bit more about the rise of CRISPR in science before I come to the not yet rise of CRISPR in popular culture.

CRISPR: Mundane tool and molecular marvel

When announcing CRISPR as science breakthrough of the year 2015, Science Magazine explained that CRISPR ”was conceived after a yogurt company in 2007 identified an unexpected defense mechanism that its bacteria use to fight off viruses. A birth announcement came in 2012, followed by crucial first steps in 2013 and a massive growth spurt last year. Now, it has matured into a molecular marvel, and much of the world—not just biologists—is taking notice of the genome-editing method CRISPR”.

When reading some of the announcements made in 2015 and 2016, one can observe that CRISPR is conceptualised both as a rather mundane tool (“’It’s going to be like PCR, a tool in the toolbox,’ says Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley”) and as a ‘molecular marvel’ (“It’s [nothing] short of miraculous. It’s hard to believe how efficient [CRISPR] is” – says Thomas Doetschman, quoted here).

Ease, precision and efficiency make CRISPR a tool of choice for scientists. It allows them to carry out basic science faster than before and also democratises its use – more people can use this tool and they can carry out more experiments. This has, of course, also aroused some fears about illicit, widespread use of CRISPR for nefarious purposes.

Let us now look at some of the ways scientists, commentators and even some film makers tell stories about CRISPR, stories that explore threats posed by CRISPR rather than celebrate the opportunities it provides to do better science.

CRISPR: Ancient myths and modern menace

As far as I can see, CRISPR and genome editing haven’t yet created their own popular image but reporting on these advances feeds on older, well-established, even stereotypical images and tropes, well rehearsed during debates about cloning, stem cells, the human genome project, even nanotechnology. I’ll first talk about the use of these entrenched narratives and then come to some more novel stories around CRISPR that are emerging just now.

In terms of old and well-established stories, there is the ubiquitous Prometheus, the famous Greek god that stole fire/knowledge, gave it to mankind and was severely punished. Prometheus was made even more famous in its reincarnation as Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus. This incarnation is used in a forthcoming book entitled Modern Prometheus: Editing the Human Genome with Crispr-Cas9 by James Kozubek. In an article written this summer, Kozubek points out that “When I set out to write my book Modern Prometheus: Editing the Human Genome with Crispr-Cas9, almost four years ago, I knew that I had found clear parallels with Shelley, whose novel offered a plot device for so many modern tales, including Flowers for Algernon and Jurassic Park. After all, Crispr-Cas9 is a powerful new genome editing tool that may allow us to engineer new species, awaken some form of extinct ones, and to engender new ‘trans-humans,’ which are engineered as the perfect machines of parentless children.” There is a bit of hype here I think.

Another mythical Greek figure also makes its expected appearance, namely Pandora. Pandora had opened a forbidden box out of curiosity and, before she could close it, all sorts evils escaped, but, once closed, hope was left at the bottom of the box. One article on gene editing using this myth says: “Like Pandora’s box, with the release of the potential for harm, there is hope for curing a myriad of diseases such as cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease.  With this hope comes economic opportunity.” This focus on hope is quite unusual!

And of course no biotech advance can be talked about without reference to Brave New World, the 1931 novel by Aldous Huxley. References to Brave New World are generally made almost without thinking when warning against using CRISPR to ‘modify’ people and their descendants. However, one seasoned scientist, David Baltimore, makes a very important point (RRI style) in a report on a gene editing summit: “’Brave New World is not a novel about science,’ says Baltimore. ‘It’s a novel about politics and the choices we make.’ He thinks we still have a bit more time to contemplate gene editing, as technologies mature. ‘I don’t think it’s a problem we’ll have to worry about for 50 years. I leave it to people in the next generation to think this through. When they do, I hope they’ll be glad we started this conversation now. The future has a way of arriving quickly.’” This is important, as often time-frames are not discussed in science communication about genome editing.

Strangely, the future that Baltimore evokes also has a past, namely in the 1997 film Gattaca. “The film presents a biopunk vision of a future society driven by eugenics where potential children are conceived through genetic manipulation to ensure they possess the best hereditary traits of their parents”. Several commentators re-watched Gattaca at the dawn of the age of CRISPR and gene editing. Some were rather alarmed, some less so.

I agree with one commentator, Eva Glasrud, who said: “THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO REASON TO PANIC! We are not anywhere close to Gattaca (you know—that 1997 movie about a future in which every embryo is edited to be perfect?)”. For more information about why we should not panic about gene editing in the context of human reproduction and designer babies, you can also read this article by A. Cecile J.W. Janssens.

What about more modern takes on CRISPR? What is out there? So far I have found a reference to the X files. A member of the SBRC team, Gareth Little, sent me an email about a film set in the future in which CRISPR plays a role, produced by Jennifer Lopez. The headline in Science (19 October) reads “Jennifer Lopez set to produce NBC bio-terror drama C.R.I.S.P.R.” The article goes on to say: “Each episode of the new J Lo–produced show, slated to air on NBC, will investigate a criminal bio-attack based on the CRISPR gene-editing technique, from a genetic assassination attempt on the president to the framing of an unborn child for murder.” The comments underneath the article are interesting as they express fears that this probably over-hyped rendition of CRISPR will provoke (unwarranted) public fear and antagonism. Here you can read Jennifer Doudna’s (under)statement on the matter.

I’d love to hear from readers who have come across other instances like this!

CRISPR ethics

CRISPR is becoming a central (mundane and marvellous) tool in many fields of genomics. It is also being used to understand embryonic growth in humans. Speculations about using CRISPR to create ‘designer babies’ abound and there are fears that we might intentionally or accidentally alter the germline or use CRISPR to make bioweapons. Much real ethics, speculative ethics, as well as fictional ethics, has focused on these topics. We should, however, beware of ethics hype as much as of science hype, especially geno-hype.

When regulating CRISPR, philosophers, bioethicists, scientists, publics and policy people should ask themselves when and how speculative, futuristic risks and threats might influence thinking about real benefits (and vice versa). There is, of course a difficult balance to strike. Do we run with the mundane and miraculous or do we put mythologically inspired breaks on?

Posted in responsible innovationsynthetic biology