January 20, 2023, by Brigitte Nerlich
Gene drive communication: On bombs and bullets
In a recent article for Scientific American, the zoologist and author of a recent book on the history of genetic engineering, Matthew Cobb, lays out the pros and cons of ‘gene drive’. Gene drive is a new genetic technology that could be used to wipe out whole species of insects that transmit, for example, malaria. The snippet before the actual article asks an interesting question: “Is it a magic bullet or a genetic atom bomb?”
This made me think about the origins and reach of these two militaristic metaphors. Where do these metaphors come from? What role do they play in health, risk and science communication? Let’s do a bit of conceptual digging.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘magic bullet’ as “An idealized therapeutic agent that is highly specific for the pathogen or disorder concerned. Also in extended use.”
The metaphor was first used in 1906 by the Nobel prize winning scientist and immunologist Paul Ehrlich, when he said in an address delivered at the Dedication of the Georg-Speyer-Haus: “If we picture an organism as infected by a certain species of bacterium, it will obviously be easy to effect a cure if substances have been discovered which have an exclusive affinity for these bacteria and act deleteriously or lethally on these alone, while at the same time they possess no affinity for the normal constituents of the body and can therefore have the least harmful, or other, effect on that body. Such substances would then be able to exert their full action exclusively on the parasite harboured within the organism and would represent, so to speak, magic bullets, which seek their target of their own accord”. Antibiotics, for example, at least in their ‘idealised’ form.
In 1907 Ehrlich wrote about ‘charmed bullets’ in the Journal of the Royal Institute of Public Health and said (according to the OED, but see also Wikipedia): “Antitoxins and antibacterial substances are, so to speak, charmed bullets which strike only those objects for whose destruction they have been produced by the organism.” He also claimed that: “We must learn to shoot microbes with magic bullets”, that is, bullets that “find their target by themselves” (1949, OED).
Here the meaning of magic bullet is quite specific, focusing on the homing ability of the bullet. Later the metaphor broadened its meaning when people said that: “No one has yet found a magic bullet for quickly cutting Milwaukee’s crime rate.” (1992, OED).
Britannica therefore defines ‘magic bullet’ as “a drug or treatment that cures a disease quickly and easily without producing bad effects. 2. : something that solves a difficult problem easily”. And they provide this example of the use of the phrase: “There is no magic bullet to fix our educational system.” If one were to do a corpus linguistic analysis to find out what other words ‘magic bullet’ is friends with, so to speak, one would probably find the words ‘no’ or ‘not’.
What about ‘gene bomb’ or ‘atomic gene bomb’ or ‘genetic atom bomb’ ? Here things are more complicated, as the phrase has not yet appeared in any dictionary. This means it’s more difficult to trace its history. Let’s start with the word ‘bomb’ before it was applied more specifically to gene drive.
In 1968, at the height of the cold war and amidst fears of atomic weapons proliferation, Gordon Rattray Taylor, journalist and for a while chief science adviser to the BBC, wrote a book entitled The Biological Time Bomb, a title that echoes a famous book by another Ehrlich, Paul Ralph Ehrlich, namely The Population Bomb written at the same time.
Taylor’s book warns of the possible dangers of technological and scientific progress and became a best seller. I came across it when I studied the public discussion of cloning after 1997. Taylor’s book deals with early cloning attempts, but also contains one chapter wholly devoted to “The Genetic Engineers”, and speaks of “genetic surgery” and “gene warfare”, topics now discussed again by Matthew Cobb in his book The Genetic Age: Our Perilous Quest To Edit Life. In the book, Cobb mentions Taylor and also quotes excerpts from London’s Evening Standard and The Times which spoke about fears regarding the advent of biological or genetic bombs at the end of the 60s.
In 1996 a book appeared with the actual title Gene Bomb, by David E. Comings which claims that higher education and advanced technology may unintentionally favour the selection of genes that increase the likelihood of ADHD, autism, drug addiction, learning disorders, and behaviour problems. But that is not important in this context.
In the early 2000s, as Cobb details in his article for Scientific American, Austin Burt began to carry out research into what is now widely known as ‘gene drives’. The word drive refers to the fact that a genetic change is driven rapidly through a population – the genetic change sort of ‘explodes’. After the advent of CRISPR around 2013, gene drive research accelerated together questions about risk and safety, with some beginning to speculate whether this could become “the next weapon of mass destruction”. (As an aside, around the same time, hope was also invested in smart or stealth bombs to target cancer in the context of developments in nanobiotechnology, seen also as magic, targeted, bullets à la Ehrlich, indeed more like guided missiles than bombs)
All this leads up to 2015, when Valentino Gantz and Ethan Bier published a seminal paper in which they used the expression ‘mutagenic chain reaction’ to describe a gene drive mechanism based on a special form of gene editing or CRISPR. The phrase ‘mutagenic chain reaction’, once released into the wild together with an American government report scrutinising the new technology, seems to have awakened dormant dragons of atomic fear – as Taylor had said “unanswered questions spring up like foes from dragons’ teeth” (Taylor, 1968, p. 26). This was boosted by headlines like this in Science News (2015): “’Chain reactions spreads gene through insects”.
In a blog post of 2016 Vandana Shiva, an Indian scholar and environmental activist, traced the metaphorical or analogical shape of opposition to this technology: “Gene Drives have been called ‘mutagenic chain reactions’, and are to the biological world what chain reactions are to the nuclear world.”
In 2016, the campaign group ETC issued a call to “Stop the Gene Bomb!” which was widely reported in the media. As Jim Thomas, then program director of the group, argued in The Guardian “a gene drive might be better regarded as a ‘gene bomb’: dropped into the normal course of inheritance, it annihilates natural variety (. . .). It may even annihilate the species itself”.
In 2017 The Wall Street Journal described gene drive technology as “a sort of genetic time bomb that could wipe out the species”, using a metaphor we know from Taylor’s book. The same year Cobb published an article in The New York Review entitled “The Brave New World of Gene Editing” in which he said that “Gene drives are artificial bits of DNA that rapidly spread through the population. When a gene drive is used, the frequency of the altered gene increases exponentially with each generation, rapidly flooding the whole population. A gene drive is essentially a biological bomb”, a topic he returned to in his 2022 book on the moral history of genetic engineering.
In 2018 an article in The Times said that “genes that act as a time-delayed bomb in the population”. And in 2020 Silvia Ribeiro, the Latin America Director for ETC group, reported on the Nobel prize for CRISPR as “Nobel Prize for a gene bomb”, which is a bit disingenuous as CRISPR is not the same as ‘gene drive’.
There are two aspects to the gene bomb metaphor. On the one hand it accurately describes what a gene drive is and what it does with genes and genomes. On the other hand it evokes the effects it potentially has on a species, ecology and environment. The metaphor often flickers between the two entailments.
In 2016, at the height of the genetic bomb scare, the bioethicist Daniel Callahan published an essay entitled “Gene Drive Technology: Lessons of the Atomic Bomb” and said something quite hopeful:
“One can see in this report the full atomic bomb paradigm in play, beginning with whether the research should go on at all, to how it might be organized to take into account complex scientific and ethical considerations, and then how to regulate it. The report makes clear that it could be a long and contentious struggle. While there may well be some rogue scientists who will strike out on their own, and perhaps no way to stop them, the issue is now in the first stage. But for that stage the report effectively lays the groundwork for a meaningful public and scientific discussion and debate.”
This has, indeed, happened ever since. Using the ‘bomb paradigm’ might have ‘worked’.
As Taylor said in 1968: “To judge from what scientists themselves are saying, the most serious of all the human problems created by biological research is constituted by man’s imminent power to interfere in the process of heredity, to alter the genetic structure of his own species.” (p. 158) One of those scientists now is actually Matthew Cobb whose book on the history of genetic engineering also guides us through the history of the moral dilemmas surrounding this endeavour.
The metaphor of the magic bullet, opens up a space for thinking about gene drives as something precisely targeted and beneficiary to human health. In its modern incarnation and modified by the word ‘not’, it also makes us think that that is actually not so easy. The metaphor of the gene bomb, by contrast, opens up, at least in one of its incarnations, a space for thinking about gene drive as something dangerous, imprecise and causing indiscriminate destruction. It walks a bit of a tight rope between scaring people and making them take responsibility, an interesting balancing act in responsible communication.
Some years ago I wrote an article entitled “Biomilitarism and nanomedicine: Evil metaphors for the good of human health?” I discussed some bullet and bomb metaphors and wondered why such destructive metaphors are used in order to make the world a better and healthier place. In the context of this blog post, one can perhaps say that throwing cold water on the magic bullet metaphor makes us think hard about some perhaps overhyped claims made about gene drives, while dropping the atomic bomb image into a gene drive discussion might make people sit up and take notice and ask what could possibly go wrong. Both metaphors need to be used with as much caution and responsibility as antibiotics and gene drives.
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