Ethan Zuckerman: Our next act, and please come onto the stage, is titled Messing with Nature.” And this is the first of two Messing with Nature pan­els. This one is on genet­ic engi­neer­ing. And I’m going to hand you over to your mod­er­a­tor. Megan Palmer is a bio­engi­neer turned pol­i­cy wonk. She is now a Senior Fellow in inter­na­tion­al secu­ri­ty over at Stanford, and she’s going to lead us through this conversation.

Megan Palmer: As the video here pro­vokes us to ask, mess­ing with nature.” When it comes to a field as fast-moving and as high of stakes as genet­ic engi­neer­ing, how do we pro­ceed wise­ly? How do we bal­ance our own wild­ness and civil­i­ty as we devel­op increas­ing­ly pow­er­ful ways to inter­act with the liv­ing world?

Today we’re joined by three excep­tion­al pan­elists, who are ask­ing ques­tions, pur­su­ing lines of research, that are con­sid­ered by some to be wrong, for­bid­den, sacro­sanct. They’re real­ly push­ing the lim­its of our abil­i­ty to engi­neer our envi­ron­ment and our selves. I’m look­ing for­ward to the chance to dis­cuss with them how they grap­ple with that type of respon­si­bil­i­ty. Are there types of ques­tions they don’t ask? 

But this is a very per­son­al issue for me, because I did train as a bio­log­i­cal engi­neer right here at MIT. And there, I real­ly only con­sid­ered the con­struc­tive uses of the tech­nol­o­gy. Now, I work instead of engi­neer­ing at the micro­scop­ic scale, at the mol­e­c­u­lar scale, I con­sid­er how we are shaped by and shape our social world at a glob­al scale by being able to engi­neer liv­ing sys­tems. More on that in a minute. First I want to intro­duce our panelists.

We’re first joined by Kevin Esvelt. He’s right here at the Media Lab. And he leads a group called Sculpting Evolution. And that group is real­ly invent­ing new tech­nolo­gies to engi­neer ecosys­tems in real­ly pow­er­ful and pro­found ways, but also ask­ing how can we change the process by which we devel­op these tech­nolo­gies to ask the right ques­tions at the beginning.

We also have Ryan Phelan. She leads Revive & Restore, whose mis­sion is to increase bio­di­ver­si­ty but specif­i­cal­ly through genet­ic res­cue, look­ing at species that are either on the brink or are already extinct, and how we can use new genet­ic tools to bring them back.

And last­ly we have George Church, who is real­ly a leader, a pio­neer, and a vision­ary in genet­ics and in genet­ic engi­neer­ing, who’s devel­oped new tools and start­ed major projects like the Human Genome Project and the Personal Genome Project.

I’ve asked them to each share about five min­utes about their work, and then we’ll get into a dis­cus­sion about why they do what they do. But I thought I would share a lit­tle bit about first my path on why I’m here today.

So, for the last five years I’ve par­tic­i­pat­ed in a multi-university research cen­ter devel­op­ing the field of syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy. MIT was one of those uni­ver­si­ties. And I helped to codi­rect part of that cen­ter that was focused on pol­i­cy and prac­tices, real­ly ask­ing dif­fi­cult ques­tions about the safe­ty, the secu­ri­ty, the ethics, the gov­er­nance of get­ting bet­ter at engi­neer­ing biology.

We con­front­ed a num­ber of very dif­fi­cult ques­tions, and we worked with both lead­ers in genet­ic engi­neer­ing, but also experts in law, in the social sci­ences, in sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy stud­ies, and polit­i­cal sci­ence, to ask these com­plex ques­tions all through the process of devel­op­ing the tech­nolo­gies. Some of the ques­tions that we came across were around does get­ting bet­ter at engi­neer­ing biol­o­gy nec­es­sar­i­ly increase our thriv­ing, our secu­ri­ty, our eco­nom­ic pros­per­i­ty? Or might it imper­il it? It’s the real­i­ty that micro­scop­ic organ­isms are try­ing to kill us all the time, uncon­scious­ly. So are our con­scious efforts going to be more of a risk through either acci­dents, or through unin­tend­ed con­se­quences, or the inten­tion­al mis­use of the types of tech­nolo­gies we create?

A sec­ond and often less appre­ci­at­ed set of ques­tions had to do with, if we’re giv­ing these tools to all the peo­ple in a dis­trib­uted man­ner, first of all can we do that? Will it increase social inequities or will it decrease them? And does access to the tools nec­es­sar­i­ly mean access to the ben­e­fits and access to the risks?

And it’s easy to get caught up in paral­y­sis when you’re ask­ing these ques­tions. Some of my col­leagues call it the half-pipe of doom.” We’re simul­ta­ne­ous­ly destroy­ing and sav­ing the world all at the same time. So what we did was rather take a real­ly case-based approach and real­ly focus on what are the par­tic­u­lar projects, and who are the par­tic­u­lar peo­ple we’re work­ing with?

One of the most suc­cess­ful places we looked at this, I think, is in the con­text of the iGEM com­pe­ti­tion. Some of you may be famil­iar with the first robot­ics com­pe­ti­tion, where you get a kit of parts and get to build a robot over the sum­mer and show it off and com­pete against your friends. Here at MIT, they start­ed the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition. Same idea. You get a kit of genet­ic parts. And then you give them to under­grad­u­ates to fig­ure out what are they gonna make? They don’t com­pete them against each oth­er; that would be a bad idea. But rather, they ask what is the most use­ful thing we can do with this technology?”

And one of the things we can do with some­thing like an under­grad­u­ate com­pe­ti­tion where peo­ple don’t know how to do sci­ence yet, is you can give them incen­tives and rewards to ask those dif­fi­cult ques­tions all along the way. So they actu­al­ly show us how should we think about these ques­tions. What should the rules b?. Because in often case, the rules in laws around this don’t apply.

The oth­er thing they learn is some­thing that I did not learn when I was in under­grad­u­ate or grad­u­ate stud­ies, which is around norms that used to exist about the destruc­tive use of biotech­nol­o­gy. They learned that the US, for instance, had an offen­sive bio­log­i­cal weapons pro­gram that was con­sid­ered at one point to be some­thing that we would do. And since the 1970s, this is not what we do. We have an agree­ment that we are not going to do it. But they also learned that they have to uphold that norm over time.

Now, the dif­fi­cult thing comes not with the kids, but with the adults. And as we are see­ing these types of tech­nolo­gies that real­ly push the bound­aries of what we can do, that lim­it between what’s con­struc­tive and what is destruc­tive gets real­ly fuzzy. But that doesn’t stop us from devel­op­ing new poli­cies. So we already have poli­cies around ethics and safe­ty when it comes to the research in these labs. As of last September we now have new poli­cies around dual-use research of con­cern, mean­ing all of biotech­nol­o­gy is dual-use, but some of it is potentially…concerning, more con­cern­ing. Things like work on pathogens.

But when it comes to apply­ing those rules, we can’t real­ly quite fig­ure out in what cas­es should it apply. And when we devel­op the data to fig­ure out okay, can we bal­ance the ben­e­fits and risks? The jury is out. We actu­al­ly can’t quan­ti­fy some of those risks. So we’re left with ques­tions about who should decide in the midst of uncertainty. 

I don’t have answers but I hope that we can dis­cuss today what that might look like. I’m going to allow Kevin now to go on and tell us a lit­tle bit about his work.


Kevin Esvelt: Thank you, Megan. So, I’m inter­est­ed in the ques­tion of when we engi­neer life, what does that say to oth­er peo­ple? And what are the reper­cus­sions, not nec­es­sar­i­ly to the liv­ing sys­tems that com­prise our world? Living sys­tems that—let’s not doubt it—that we depend upon. That is, ecosys­tems are the life sup­port sys­tems of the plan­et. And it’s not unrea­son­able to say that we tam­per with them at our per­il. And of course, we’re doing that all the time.

But peo­ple are unusu­al­ly sen­si­tive to alter­ing life. And we need to rec­og­nize that there’s a dif­fer­ence between alter­ing a sin­gle organ­ism in the lab­o­ra­to­ry and alter­ing many. Because when we alter one organ­ism, we’re tin­ker­ing with some­thing that evo­lu­tion has opti­mized for repro­duc­tion in the wild. And in gen­er­al, when we mess with it, we break some­thing. That means that when we alter an organ­ism, it’s not going to sur­vive and pro­lif­er­ate very well in the wild. Our change is not going to spread. 

But there are some nat­ur­al genet­ic ele­ments that will spread in the wild, even if they don’t advan­tage the organ­ism. And the dawn of CRISPR, which is a mol­e­c­u­lar scalpel that lets us pre­cise­ly cut and there­fore edit any gene in any organ­ism, can also be used to build one of these gene dri­ve sys­tems that lets us spread that change through entire wild pop­u­la­tions. That is, biol­o­gy has always been of course a self-replicating tech­nol­o­gy. But when nat­ur­al selec­tion weeds out your changes, that’s not real self-replication. That’s self-replication in an envi­ron­ment you control.

With gene dri­ve, we can spread those changes to the wild. This has immense poten­tial to do good because this is a way to solve eco­log­i­cal prob­lems using biol­o­gy, not bull­doz­ers and poi­sons. We could alter or remove the mos­qui­toes that spread malar­ia. We could solve schis­to­so­mi­a­sis, known as snail fever. The Aedes mos­qui­toes that spread oth­er dis­eases. We could con­trol inva­sive species. We could, instead of spray­ing poi­sons to kill insects that eat our crops, we could tweak the pests so they don’t like the smell.

But what is it going to do if some­one mess­es up? That is, we’re tread­ing on the bound­ary of what many peo­ple con­sid­er to be fun­da­men­tal­ly unwise or even pro­found­ly moral­ly wrong. We are mess­ing not just with a sin­gle organ­ism in the lab, or even ones that we might grow in our fields, but entire nat­ur­al ecosys­tems. What if some­one makes a mis­take? What would the pub­lic back­lash be, and how much harm would that do to this field and its poten­tial to do good to save lives and species? Or to every­thing else we might do in biotech­nol­o­gy. Or even to bio­log­i­cal research in gen­er­al. You can’t ban CRISPR-based gene dri­ve with­out ban­ning CRISPR, and CRISPR is now one of the four pil­lars of biotechnology.

So how do we address this? Well, we are work­ing to ensure that all work is done in the open. Because we have to ask, do we have the right to run exper­i­ments that could end up affect­ing every­one if we make a mis­take behind closed doors? In med­ical research we demand informed con­sent before exper­i­ments can be run. But right now, there’s noth­ing stop­ping me or any oth­er sci­en­tists from sim­ply build­ing a gene dri­ve sys­tem in the lab that could impact the lives of every­one here. That’s a prob­lem. Because we’re not always care­ful. There are lab­o­ra­to­ry acci­dents. So, some things are for­bid­den and arguably shouldn’t be. Other things, per­haps we should set up some more barriers.

But does that not mean that laws are the solu­tion? We’ve heard about the flaws of laws and reg­u­la­tions. So per­haps instead what we need to do is change the incen­tives so that research like this, that would have shared impacts, is always done in the open. That would actu­al­ly accel­er­ate progress. Because right now, it’s very hard to know what oth­er peo­ple are doing, what oth­er peo­ple can do. It’s very hard to find the oth­er piece of the puz­zle. It’s very hard to learn whether or not your efforts are real­ly wast­ed because oth­er peo­ple are doing the same thing. Science would be more effi­cient, and it would be safer, if done in the open. Because then every­one can keep an eye on one another.

So we’re work­ing to ensure that this is pos­si­ble by in part lead­ing through exam­ple. We’re not only devel­op­ing tech­nolo­gies that would let us alter local ecosys­tems, not just glob­al ones, but we’re also pio­neer­ing an approach where­in you test the alter­ation, in the wild, with­out a gene dri­ve sys­tem, and you do it in a local grass­roots manner. 

And we’re doing this by work­ing with local com­mu­ni­ties. Just yes­ter­day we went to Martha’s Vineyard, island off the coast here, to intro­duce the idea of releas­ing mice engi­neered to be unable to to car­ry the pathogen that caus­es Lyme Disease. Most cas­es of Lyme come when ticks bite these mice and get infect­ed, and then bite a per­son. If we can pre­vent the mice from being infect­ed, then we can dis­rupt the cycle of trans­mis­sion in the ecosys­tem. No infect­ed ticks, no infect­ed kids.

But we’re doing it by approach­ing the com­mu­ni­ties at the ear­li­est pos­si­ble stage, before we’ve done any­thing in the lab, to ask for their guid­ance. And the response was remark­able Martha’s Vineyard is known as a sort of crunchy nuts and gra­nola com­mu­ni­ty. People are very con­cerned with genetically-modified foods. But when we empha­sized we’re com­ing to you first; we’re doing this in the open; this is a non­prof­it; it offers obvi­ous ben­e­fits; we’re very con­cerned about safe­guards; we are not start­ing with a gene dri­ve sys­tem; and we want inde­pen­dent mon­i­tor­ing set up by you to make sure that every­thing goes well and that you’re con­fi­dent; we want to build in points where the project stops unless you give explic­it per­mis­sion to suc­ceed. And out of the hun­dred peo­ple who attend­ed this meet­ing, every sin­gle one sup­port­ed mov­ing forward. 

So this is a way that we can pro­ceed, that we can walk this line with research that peo­ple are very ner­vous about, by mak­ing it safer and increas­ing pub­lic con­fi­dence in this. Because edu­ca­tion alone will not do it. You can­not sim­ply explain what you want to do and how it works and trust that peo­ple will go along. You have to show that you under­stand their con­cerns. You need to invite their con­cerns. Because trust is not a giv­en. It must be earned each and every time. Thank you.


Ryan Phelan: Extinction is a famil­iar con­cept to every­one in this room. But it might sur­prise you to know that just over a hun­dred years ago, no one real­ly believed that you could actu­al­ly wipe out a whole species off of a con­ti­nent. And we did that with the pas­sen­ger pigeon in 1912. It was real­ly the first time the pub­lic real­ly dealt with that con­cept, and yet it’s ingrained in all of us today this room that extinc­tion is forever.

Slide: Revive & Restore Extinction Continuum

Well, on the left hand side of your screen, you’ve got those species that are walk­ing into that line in the cen­ter, cross­ing over into extinc­tion. And with the help of George Church and oth­ers, we have start­ed to think about if there’s recov­er­able DNA, that it changes the game. And I’m going to share a lit­tle bit about that with you.

For the last four years, our orga­ni­za­tion Revive & Restore, which I start­ed with Stewart Brand as part of The Long Now Foundation, have talked about the con­cept of using recov­er­able DNA the wool­ly mam­moth, for the pas­sen­ger pigeon, and oth­er extinct species, to actu­al­ly bring them back to a healthy ecosys­tem some­day. Now, this is a long-term project. And one of the things I want to share with you is the fact this idea of de-extinction has been applaud­ed and it cre­at­ed an incred­i­ble media inter­est and a lot of pub­lic inter­est. But it’s actu­al­ly strange­ly taboo for a lot of the aca­d­e­mi­cians who have want­ed to get involved with this project; for fun­ders, who have been appre­hen­sive about fund­ing de-extinction and yet very sup­port­ive of the work that we do on that oth­er side of that con­tin­u­um slide, which is using the same tools of genomics to help endan­gered species, many who are are far along along the line on that brink of extinction.

So it’s inter­est­ing to us that we’ve been able to see this change where we’ve been able to secure gov­ern­ment spon­sor­ship with US Fish and Wildlife, with cor­po­rate poten­tial part­ners, with fun­ders, for the kind of work that we might do with the black-footed fer­ret that’s an endan­gered mam­mal. Or for using genet­ic res­cue to save the birds of Hawaii that are being plagued with avian malar­ia brought in by an inva­sive mos­qui­to. There’s a lot more inter­est in that even though, as Kevin says, we might dri­ve that mos­qui­to to extinc­tion. So you know, imag­ine how com­pli­cat­ed that is for all of us. One side talk­ing about de-extinction, anoth­er side poten­tial­ly even talk­ing about extinction.

And I think part of the prob­lem with de-extinction, and it’s the argu­ment that is raised by many con­ser­va­tion­ists and envi­ron­men­tal­ists, is it will take away from the con­cept that extinc­tion is for­ev­er. That that slo­gan has been a ral­ly­ing cry for envi­ron­men­tal­ists for the last fifty, six­ty years that has made us moti­vat­ed as cit­i­zens to pro­tect those endan­gered species. And that’s a good thing.

On the oth­er hand, if these tech­nolo­gies that oth­ers are pio­neer­ing can actu­al­ly take spec­i­mens like the pas­sen­ger pigeon from the toe pad and extract that DNA from over 1,500 spec­i­mens that are in muse­ums all over the world of pas­sen­ger pigeons— If we could actu­al­ly bring that bird back, we could poten­tial­ly recre­ate that ecosystem.

So their con­cern is tak­ing mon­ey away from con­ser­va­tion, which is under­stood. But they see it as sort of a zero-sum game. And we want to make sure that we can attract more mon­ey for con­ser­va­tion and bring new aware­ness to these endan­gered species, like the birds of Hawaii with avian malar­ia. But the bot­tom line is they’re real­ly also con­cerned about some­thing that is referred to as the moral haz­ard. That we in the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion may unleash a prob­lem for future gen­er­a­tions. That prob­lem could be that de-extinction doesn’t real­ly work. We’ve made it look easy, and peo­ple will take pres­sure off of pro­tec­tion, and they’ll inher­it the prob­lems that sci­en­tists today will be unleash­ing on those future gen­er­a­tions. And that’s some­thing that we all have to take very seri­ous­ly, and I wel­come this con­ver­sa­tion today.

Thirty years ago today, lit­er­al­ly, the Frozen Zoo at UC San Diego was viewed as being incred­i­bly rogue with the idea of tak­ing in and cry­op­re­serv­ing endan­gered species. And they raised that moral haz­ard argu­ment with them. They said you know, You’re gonna take the pres­sure off of pro­tec­tion if peo­ple think you can just recon­sti­tute these species.” But thir­ty years lat­er, we’re now tak­ing those cells out and using them to increase genet­ic vari­a­tion in the very same black-footed fer­ret that is suf­fer­ing now from dis­ease sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty because of the lack of genet­ic vari­a­tion. Today, the Frozen Zoo is viewed as being pre­scient and think­ing about the future for oth­er gen­er­a­tions. And I can only won­der, thir­ty years from today, what future gen­er­a­tions will think of genom­ic tech­nolo­gies and the oppor­tu­ni­ty that we have had to explore bring­ing back, adapt­ing, engi­neer­ing, species to give them a greater path­way into the future.


George Church: So, when we talk about for­bid­den, we wor­ry about things like com­mand­ments; hurt­ing, or stealing…individuals. It’s even more prob­lem­at­ic when we talk about hurt­ing class­es of indi­vid­u­als as we’ve heard already today. And even more prob­lem­at­ic when we’re talk­ing about impact­ing the entire world. And that’s why we get con­cern about self-modification. About sys­tems that can write their own code, that can evolve at alarm­ing rates. We wor­ry about things like arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, but this is kind of a place­hold­er for actu­al­ly chang­ing our­selves. We’re hybrids. We’ve been hybrids. We’ve been aug­ment­ed for a long time. We reas­sure our­selves that oh well, we’ve banned aug­men­ta­tion in sports, but most of our life is not about sports. It’s about… we’re quite will­ing to change our minds and change our bodies. 

And many peo­ple of will even do this well before FDA approval. There are now indi­vid­u­als that I know per­son­al­ly that are doing gene ther­a­py on them­selves, way in advance of ani­mal and FDA test­ing. We’ve seen gene ther­a­py fail in the past, but gene ther­a­py is def­i­nite­ly with us. There 2,200 gene ther­a­pies in clin­i­cal tri­als right now. Fully approved process­es. Many of them are get­ting into practice. 

This abil­i­ty to self-modify is quite promi­nent, and we can’t say oh, it’s all about DNA, it’s all about genes. Because you know, there are many things that are heritable—in fact, most things that are her­i­ta­ble like this thing here. [holds up his cell phone] In my fam­i­ly we have gen­er­a­tions that have used this. And when we talk about genes, you have this kind of genet­ic excep­tion­al­ism where you’re talk­ing about irre­versibil­i­ty. This is ridicu­lous. Genetics is per­fect­ly reversible. The things that are hard to reverse are the oth­er things we inher­it, which are things like a cul­ture, and our tech­nol­o­gy. It’s very hard to pry this loose from our soci­ety, our com­put­ers and our phones. 

What we’re wor­ried about is some­thing that we do that could be very attrac­tive in the short term and have some trig­ger­ing mech­a­nism or some slow events that occur far in the future. And that’s why we wor­ry about chang­ing our­selves, chang­ing our envi­ron­ment in such a way that we could have unin­tend­ed consequences. 

But doing noth­ing is also extra­or­di­nar­i­ly risky. We have a pop­u­la­tion which is eas­i­ly twice what we thought was the car­ry­ing capac­i­ty of the globe, and it’s prob­a­bly half of what we will even­tu­al­ly have. So there’s no mag­ic num­ber, but the thing is we need to be very thought­ful about unin­tend­ed con­se­quences, which means we need to have an open sys­tem such as Kevin has outlined.

And this has been a core theme for many of the peo­ple in this room, in this meet­ing today, and in my own lab. Over a decade ago, three exam­ples of the mak­ing open… How peo­ple are involved in med­ical research so they can get access to their own data, whether it’s med­ical records or med­ical research. And then how they can safe­ly under­stand what they’re get­ting into and share that infor­ma­tion. A sec­ond exam­ple is The rise of syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy. All of these meth­ods of read­ing and writ­ing genomes are an expo­nen­tial curve which is faster than any tech­nol­o­gy has ever been. We’re mea­sur­ing half-lives and dou­bling times not in decades but in months in these fields. And so you need to pay atten­tion. So I argued for sur­veil­lance of the uses of syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy, which is now fair­ly wide­spread among the com­pa­nies that pro­vide syn­thet­ic DNA.

So, what we need going for­ward is not just a reac­tion to what we think is yucky. I mean, for exam­ple germ line mod­i­fi­ca­tion may be more accept­able to some peo­ple than abor­tion or in vit­ro fer­til­iza­tion. If you have a reces­sive dis­ease in your fam­i­ly 25% of the embryos are at risk. With IVF it might be 80%. While with sperm mod­i­fi­ca­tion it could be no embryos are at risk. You change the alle­les back to the nor­mal ver­sion of DNA that’s present In 99.9% of the pop­u­la­tion; it’s very well test­ed. We need to think a lit­tle bit out of the box rather than imme­di­ate­ly reject­ing some of these new technologies. 

Altering our minds. We cer­tain­ly do do this with chem­i­cals. We are doing it increas­ing­ly. There are hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple who have var­i­ous elec­trodes implant­ed for sen­so­ry issues, for depres­sion, for epilep­sy, and so on. We will con­tin­ue to do that, and it will become more and more bio­log­i­cal. That is to say the Compactness and the pro­gram­ma­bil­i­ty of bio­log­i­cal sys­tems will enable this. And this will go much faster than any­thing we can do in the germ line. We can mod­i­fy our selves real-time. It’s obvi­ous­ly going to be a faster rev­o­lu­tion. It could spread as fast as the Internet does, while germ line takes on the order of twen­ty years to see impact. Thank you.


Palmer: So we’ve heard about poten­tial­ly, tech­nolo­gies that can make species extinct, tech­nolo­gies that can recov­er them from extinc­tion, and tech­nolo­gies that can alter us in ways we may not even imag­ine. What I’d like to talk about is—because there’s so many dif­fer­ent issues that genet­ic engi­neer­ing and genet­ics brings up—is is to real­ly bring it back to the personal. 

So for you, in your work, in your labs, how do you actu­al­ly rec­on­cile whether or not you should do what you’re doing? Are there steps that you’ve had to put in place, or advi­sors you’ve had to put in place to help you wres­tle with these ques­tions over time. And I’ll start with George, because per­haps you have the largest group of poten­tial advi­sors right now.

Church: Yeah. Well, step one is open­ness to being advised, to lis­ten­ing. Not just edu­cat­ing the pub­lic, but lis­ten­ing very care­ful­ly. And of course that can come from the gov­ern­ment, indus­try, lay audi­ences, reli­gious groups, and so on. And you need to hear what’s impor­tant to them, whether or not it makes sense to you imme­di­ate­ly, sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, it makes sense in some larg­er glob­al sens­es. So I think that’s num­ber one where I can deal[?].

Also, just mak­ing a spe­cial effort to make our infor­ma­tion pub­lic in a one-sided way, ignor­ing pos­si­ble com­peti­tors that might take advan­tage of us and so forth, that’s I think an impor­tant part of mak­ing sure we don’t do the wrong thing. Because we need lots of input. It’s not just like some super-genius is going to fig­ure it all out. 

Palmber: Kevin, for instance, in your work is there a point at which with this meet­ing that you had at Martha’s Vineyard, what if the answer had been not 100% yes? What if it had been 75 or 50 per­cent? What would you you do with that? What would be your next step? 

Esvelt: In terms of pro­ceed­ing, that’s a ques­tion for the com­mu­ni­ty, and it’s an issue of gov­er­nance. It’s up to the com­mu­ni­ty to decide do they need­ed a two thirds major­i­ty to pro­ceed, do they need unan­i­mous con­sent, or what.

I was a lit­tle bit dis­ap­point­ed that it was unan­i­mous, because I was hop­ing that we might have some skep­tics. Because skep­tics are actu­al­ly he ones that we need. Because if we’re doing every­thing in the open and we’re invit­ing scruti­ny, the peo­ple I trust to be the most care­ful in check­ing every­thing that we’re propos­ing, to find any kind of error that could sink the project— And make no mis­take, were set­ting it up such that the project stops unless there is affir­ma­tive com­mu­ni­ty con­sent to proceed. 

Phelan: So, this ques­tion of com­mu­ni­ty is impor­tant, because it’s which com­mu­ni­ty. So you know, Martha’s Vineyard is a won­der­ful island. But imag­ine it’s not an island, or the species that is being engi­neered can go off-island, the same way that many of these inva­sive species came on-island; they came by boat, they come by plane. And which com­mu­ni­ty is going to actu­al­ly give per­mis­sion for oth­er com­mu­ni­ties that may be vul­ner­a­ble. I think that just real­ly changes the game for us in this field.

Palmer: Are there sit­u­a­tions where in the work you’ve not had con­sen­sus? You have not been able to nec­es­sar­i­ly define a com­mu­ni­ty, and yet still have made the deci­sion to pro­ceed? Or, areas where you haven’t.

Phelan: Well, I think for Revive & Restore, we cer­tain­ly don’t have con­sen­sus that what we’re doing is a grand idea. What we have are peo­ple with vary­ing opin­ions. And I think what we’ve found is much greater com­fort on genet­ic res­cue for endan­gered species. And it was part­ly through that pub­lic dia­logue, George, that we had from when we put on TEDxDeExtinction with National Geographic. We got a lot of media, a lot of inter­est. But we had peo­ple say to us, Can you help with some short term gains here with species that are endangered?” 

So we learned from the pub­lic, we adapt­ed from the pub­lic response. But we haven’t giv­en up on the fact and the idea that de-extinction and the work to George and oth­ers are doing that is bleed­ing edge will help impact things for oth­er species. So I think we don’t want to say you need con­sen­sus in order to do sci­ence. We wouldn’t move any­where. But I think we need to do it, as Kevin you’re sug­gest­ing, is with a lot of pub­lic input and with a lot of safeguards.

Palmer: So, you guys have all made strides to devel­op inno­v­a­tive ways to get input, dia­logue, with your com­mu­ni­ties. Not all of our com­mu­ni­ty takes those same pre­cau­tions. How do you inter­act with oth­er peo­ple who are in the bio­log­i­cal engi­neer­ing, in the genet­ics com­mu­ni­ty, to shape that cul­ture that you dis­cussed? The things that might be hard­er to pry away. Are there things that worked, or will there always be activ­i­ties on the fringe that will just you know, not nec­es­sar­i­ly say this is a good idea? In par­tic­u­lar the case of gene dri­ves, where one actor alone could lead to a large consequence.

Esvelt: I have night­mares about fruit flies. Imagine an expand­ing wave of yel­low mov­ing from city to city, nation to nation, con­ti­nent to con­ti­nent, accom­pa­nied by head­lines every time dra­ma­tiz­ing the point that sci­en­tists can­not be trust­ed to deal with this technology. 

So in deal­ing with that, we decid­ed ear­ly on on real­iz­ing what CRISPR-based gene dri­ve could do, but we need­ed to tell the world first, before demon­strat­ing live. That’s just not done. You show that it works first, before you waste everyone’s time telling them. Now, it turns out we were right, because it’s the same mech­a­nism used for genome edit­ing and gene dri­ve. But we got a lot of pro­fes­sion­al crit­i­cism from that. 

And in a lot of oth­er fields, that makes sense. But we’re enter­ing a new era of increas­ing­ly pow­er­ful tech­nolo­gies, and the sci­en­tif­ic enter­prise incen­tivizes to do every­thing behind closed doors, as George was talk­ing about. And that’s hard because we can often get away with it. But what about our stu­dents? We’re respon­si­ble for help­ing them in their careers. If we’re open about their projects and a com­pet­ing lab that is work­ing in the dark scoops them, pub­lish­es first, that could be it for our stu­dents’ career.

And that’s a hard deci­sion because it means that yes, we do have to pre-commit to force our­selves to do the right thing in the future in moments of moral weak­ness, but we’re not the only ones bear­ing that price.

Phelan: So, there’s one oth­er exam­ple of where research is becom­ing quite open, and that is where human health issues are at an emer­gency cri­sis point like AIDS in the past, today with Zika. And I don’t know if you saw the recent edi­to­ri­als on this, real­ly call­ing for open research approach­es. And I think the more that this is sur­fac­ing, and you guys are real­ly lead­ers in this, it’s going to impact the way sci­ence is done across the board. I feel like you guys are game chang­ers for this.

Palmer: Can I dig a lit­tle bit more into what we mean by open­ness? We have lots of dif­fer­ent ways that we can tell peo­ple about what we do, and that doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean that they are con­sent­ing to it. And it doesn’t even mean they’ll pay atten­tion to it, or they’ll read it, or they will engage crit­i­cal­ly in the work that you put out there. So, one of the things that this reminds me of is in the reg­u­la­to­ry review, or any type of review, we inform peo­ple of what we do and then we expect pub­lic com­ments. And I don’t know if you’ve read some of the pub­lic com­ments, but they’re not always there, and they’re not always good. They’re not always informative. 

So as you’re think­ing about projects that are big­ger and big­ger in scale, are there types of things, steps that you would like to take to make that a more engag­ing dia­logue, to make that open­ness step-wise? What are the mean­ing­ful things we need to share, and what are the things that maybe are not worth shar­ing, or not effi­cient to keep sharing?

Esvelt: It’s hard because you can’t sim­ply share your research results. We can’t sim­ply have elec­tron­ic lab note­book and make it open and expect peo­ple to fol­low what you’re doing. That’s just too much infor­ma­tion. There’s a rea­son why we write things into sto­ries and share the sto­ries. That’s what makes peo­ple pay attention. 

And yet at the same time, we had a very near miss with fruit flies. And it was real­ly sheer acci­dent that we heard about a work and were able to con­tact the authors imme­di­ate­ly and share our con­cerns. And they actu­al­ly revised their paper days before it came out in the jour­nal, in response to those con­certs. And then we gath­ered togeth­er, worked with them and a bunch of oth­er sci­en­tists, to come up with rec­om­men­da­tions for lab­o­ra­to­ry safe­ty of gene dri­ve stud­ies to make sure there wasn’t an accident.

Palmer: Can you elab­o­rate a lit­tle bit on the fruit fly for those that don’t know?

Esvelt: So, one of the prob­lems with a tech­nol­o­gy is some­times it’s inevitable. So, we may have real­ized the impli­ca­tions of CRISPR for gene dri­ve first, but even after we had pub­lished on it and told the world before doing any­thing, and then we demon­strat­ed in the lab and so forth, anoth­er group inde­pen­dent­ly real­ized that they could essen­tial­ly teach the genome how to edit itself, and that this would be good for knock­ing out both genes in an organ­ism. Because if you insert the CRISPR sys­tem, make it self-insert­ing to dis­rupt a gene, if it goes in once it’s cer­tain­ly going to cut the oth­er ver­sion and copy itself over. That’s exact­ly how a gene dri­ve works. 

But they weren’t think­ing about a gene dri­ve as in alter­ing the wild pop­u­la­tion. They were think­ing about, We want to knock out both copies in one step very eas­i­ly and reli­ably.” And so they devel­oped it as a tool to do that, with­out real­ly think­ing about the impli­ca­tions cer­tain­ly for any oth­er species, but even real­ly for in the wild and what would hap­pen if they pub­lish this as a method for many many oth­er groups to use. And they weren’t the only ones. It’s an exam­ple of how even the best experts in a field, no mat­ter how good their inten­tions, can’t reli­ably antic­i­pate the con­se­quences of what they’re doing on their own. The world is too complicated.

Palmer: So, what any oth­er types of things that we might be able to do, know­ing that there will be mis­takes? That there will be things we do wrong. What are some of the things you’re doing, either in their labs or with oth­ers, to help antic­i­pate and per­haps have a more proac­tive response?

Phelan: Well, I think mon­i­tor­ing is going to be key in all of this, and how mon­i­tor­ing gets han­dled is— I think it’s way beyond the com­mu­ni­ty lev­el. I think any­time you’re intro­duc­ing a species that’s been engi­neered in any capac­i­ty, there are known pro­to­cols for this. And I think part of what these new tech­nolo­gies have to bor­row from are the exist­ing safe­guards that con­ser­va­tion­ists, envi­ron­men­tal­ists, have been using for decades now before they rein­tro­duce wolves to Yellowstone, or rein­tro­duce beavers to Scotland. They know how to do cap­tive breed­ing, and they know how to do release in the wild, and I think we need to learn as sci­en­tists mov­ing from the lab into the wild how to draw upon that expertise. 

Church: So, there are var­i­ous ways that we can get broad adop­tion that’s even larg­er than the small con­sen­sus that we have. So for exam­ple, we can have aide syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy com­pa­nies to do com­put­er mon­i­tor­ing of all of their orders, and then that can spread from com­pa­ny to com­pa­ny. And then that can be a very small bot­tle­neck through which tens of thou­sands of researchers have to go, whether or not they want their DNA to be mon­i­tored. So that’s an exam­ple where you iden­ti­fy a bot­tle­neck and you get con­sen­sus among the small num­bers of DNA providers.

Esvelt: And some­times you can cre­ate a bot­tle­neck. So, right now we’re work­ing to devel­op tech­nol­o­gy that would make trans­ge­n­e­sis, which is edit­ing the genome of an organ­ism in the first place where you could insert a gene dri­ve, right. Now that’s lim­it­ing. If we can—oddly enough—accel­er­ate that, make it eas­i­er, but require spe­cial­ized equip­ment, we can make it like DNA syn­the­sis. So, it will be eas­i­er for every­one to out­source their orders to a com­pa­ny that uses spe­cial­ized equip­ment to do it, there­by reduc­ing the incen­tive for lots of peo­ple to train their lab­o­ra­to­ry techs in the key tech­niques that are now lim­it­ing for build­ing a gene dri­ve system.

Palmer: I’m struck by the dif­fer­ence also in some of the nar­ra­tives when it comes to talk­ing about how we mon­i­tor and cen­tral­ize to safe­guard the tech­nol­o­gy in cer­tain cas­es in this field, fol­low­ing up from the dis­cus­sions around how we actu­al­ly ensure we don’t cen­tral­ize oth­er activ­i­ties in oth­er fields, includ­ing in the types of tech­nolo­gies we use to com­mu­ni­cate else­where. And so, how do we sort of rec­on­cile the rhetoric around the democ­ra­ti­za­tion” of those tools, of the tools that we’re [devel­op­ing?] ver­sus what it actu­al­ly means to democ­ra­tize the deci­sions and the mon­i­tor­ing and sur­veil­lance around them?

Church: So, we have anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty for get­ting broad­er engage­ment with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly huge con­sen­sus via new tech­nolo­gies. We have new tech­nolo­gies to do sequenc­ing that are get­ting to be hand­held. There will prob­a­bly be parts of our cell phone or cell phone net­work soon, wear­able sequenc­ing, where we can do sur­veil­lance of microor­gan­isms, not just the macroor­gan­isms that we might be intro­duc­ing in a de-extinction project. And that could be a very helpful.

We have to get out­reach, though, get peo­ple engaged. Do it your­self biol­o­gy should be the ulti­mate in cit­i­zen sci­ence, real­ly. It’s about your­self and your imme­di­ate envi­ron­ment. You should be able to mon­i­tor the aller­gens, pathogens, and so on. So there are efforts to try to get infor­ma­tion out to the pub­lic, again through sort of pas­sive met meth­ods. So, pged​.org, for exam­ple has out­reach through screen­writ­ers in TV and films, out­reach to Congressional aides to the indi­vid­ual desk dis­tricts, so that they are genet­i­cal­ly lit­er­ate and they know what the options are. Things like How To Grow Almost Anything is some­thing that’s a world­wide capa­bil­i­ty, builds on mak­er and fab soci­ety and so forth.

Palmer: I love to take some ques­tions from the audi­ence. I see we have one, and if oth­ers would like to ask ques­tions please just use one of the mics, and def­i­nite­ly keep them to ques­tions not comments. 

Audience 1: I have a ques­tion about informed con­sent. Maybe you know that in the EU, informed con­sent can­not be giv­en, per 2018, for algo­rith­mic decision-making, for exam­ple. And you say that you have unan­i­mous con­sent by 100 peo­ple in Martha’s Vineyard, which sounds good. But what is that con­sent? What are they con­sent­ing to? As researchers, we also don’t know what is to pass from the research that we exe­cute, so what are we inform­ing peo­ple of and how are they con­sent­ing to it, and how do you shape it in your research? 

Esvelt: It’s a great ques­tion, and a chal­lenge because all they heard was a sin­gle pre­sen­ta­tion on a tech­nol­o­gy that was admit­ted­ly imper­fect in con­vey­ing the depth of infor­ma­tion that real­ly would be nec­es­sary to give tru­ly informed con­sent. What they were con­sent­ing to was to move for­wards with doing basic lab­o­ra­to­ry exper­i­ments that would even­tu­al­ly lead to a ques­tion to them, should we pro­ceed at this par­tic­u­lar stage? So it real­ly cost them noth­ing to say yes here. We’re not going to be intro­duc­ing mice because they said yes. And how we over­come that and make it tru­ly informed, I don’t know. I think that’s the ques­tion before us, is deter­min­ing how can we extend our admit­ted­ly imper­fect mech­a­nisms of gov­er­nance to tech­nol­o­gy. Because now we’re at the stage where tech­nolo­gies devel­oped by even indi­vid­ual researchers can have an impact as great as a law passed by duly elect­ed representatives.

Church: One thing that we can do—have done—is to, when we’re get­ting con­sent for per­son­al genomics or for bio­med­ical research, we ask them to take a mul­ti­ple choice ques­tion exam to simul­ta­ne­ous­ly edu­cate them and test their under­stand­ing. I think that’s one thing. And then bet­ter yet is hav­ing them do exper­i­ments, most­ly ana­lyt­ic exper­i­ments rather than alter­ing the envi­ron­ment, so that they get a feel­ing for it. So this is the pow­er of do-it-yourself biol­o­gy, and test­ing for knowledge.

Stewart Brand: Another ques­tion is, it sounds like career devel­op­ment for sci­en­tists and maybe engi­neers has a lot to do with the dif­fer­ence between seques­ter­ing and shar­ing. And if you get reward­ed for keep­ing your stuff tight until it’s pub­lished in a pres­ti­gious and usu­al­ly expen­sive sci­en­tif­ic pub­li­ca­tion, that’s how careers go for­ward. But if what you’re shoot­ing for is open­ness, and with urgency— If you’re try­ing to get the data out to every­body as fast as pos­si­ble even though it’s not per­fect yet—like hap­pened with GenBank way back at the beginning—can career devel­op­ment move for­ward in a way so that people’s careers are reward­ed for shar­ing rather than just for seques­ter­ing information?

Church: Well, one of the pro­tec­tions there is fear of being scooped. And so now the the preprint archives that were start­ed in physics and now are quite wide­spread in biol­o­gy as well, is one way of pre­vent­ing your­self from get­ting scooped. And I’m see­ing more and more exam­ples where that is report­ed on by jour­nal­ists. They don’t wait for it to come out a fan­cy jour­nal. The fan­cy jour­nals don’t hold it against you. You can eventually…essentially pub­lish it twice, once in preprint form. But the preprint form is some­thing that we can trans­act on and dis­cuss. So I think that is a way of of get­ting this more open. And the patent sys­tem was anoth­er way of doing that. I think the alter­na­tive to patents was trade secrets, and I think that caus­es obfus­ca­tion, and I think obfus­ca­tion in bio­med­i­cine is a very bad combination.

Esvelt: But it is hard because preprints is still too late. If what you want is to invite pub­lic opin­ions and con­cerns (get­ting back to that informed con­sent ques­tion), we need to ensure that peo­ple have a voice in deci­sions that will affect them. And that deci­sion may be, Do you even begin this experiment?” 

So we need the open­ness to be at the ear­li­est stages. That is, your grant pro­pos­als need to be pub­lic. So what we’re hop­ing is that we can ensure that this is true in the field of gene dri­ve, where that should at least to me seem self-evident that you real­ly need to at least inform peo­ple of what you’re going to do if your exper­i­ment could get out of con­trol and affect them. At a minimum.

And if we can show that that works in gene dri­ve, and change the incen­tives by talk­ing with jour­nals and fun­ders and pos­si­bly even uti­liz­ing IP to ensure that that is the opti­mal course of action for indi­vid­ual researchers in that field, then maybe we can move it on from there. Say well, what about oth­er shared-impact tech­nolo­gies? And maybe if this sys­tem is more effi­cient and leads to faster sci­en­tif­ic progress, because I believe that this is a rare oppor­tu­ni­ty where we can, if we can over­come this col­lec­tive action prob­lem, accel­er­ate progress and make it safer, then maybe that mod­el can spread to the rest of the science.

Palmer: It’s always those col­lec­tive action prob­lems, right? We just need to over­come the col­lec­tive action problem.

Audience 2: So in com­put­ing, we have open source soft­ware, but it doesn’t mean much with­out being able to ver­i­fy that you’re run­ning the open source soft­ware that you think you’re run­ning. Are there oth­er mech­a­nisms for deter­min­ing that the genet­ic mod­i­fi­ca­tion, the bag of seed that you buy or the banana that you buy or the mouse that you’re deploy­ing, is run­ning the mod­i­fi­ca­tion or has been mod­i­fied in the way you think it has, and it hasn’t been kind of sub­vert­ed in any way?

Palmer: When we talk about, as George said, sur­veil­lance” in this field, we often mean just try­ing to under­stand what are the mod­i­fi­ca­tions that exist in the envi­ron­ment. So, envi­ron­men­tal sur­veil­lance, try­ing to under­stand what are the microbes around us, what are the organ­isms around us. But when it comes to research on devel­op­ing those types of tools, to under­stand the effec­tive­ness over time, it’s a pret­ty under­fund­ed area of work, often. And even know­ing who are the researchers that might do work in that inter­sec­tion between say, ecol­o­gy in the envi­ron­ment and genet­ic engi­neer­ing, that’s still an area we have to devel­op. And so I’d say in most cas­es no. But we’re try­ing. Maybe there’s… [ges­tures to panelists]

Church: Yeah. I mean, sequenc­ing tech­nol­o­gy has come down about three million-fold in cost over the last few years. So in a way, that is the way we pro­gram these sys­tems. There are parts of some genomes which are very hard to sequence, and if you hid your infor­ma­tion in those parts— But the tech­nol­o­gy is also improv­ing in mak­ing those dark regions brighter and brighter. So I think in a few years it will be very inex­pen­sive to read the code of any organ­ism and every sin­gle base pair of that organ­ism. But we’re not quite there yet. Human genome is about a thou­sand dol­lars now.

Audience 3: There’s obvi­ous­ly a lot of appli­ca­tions that come out of genet­ic engi­neer­ing and genet­ic dri­ves. And I’m won­der­ing about who’s going to be mak­ing deci­sions about the ide­al human form, espe­cial­ly as it’s applied to humans and traits that might only be expressed in 23% of the pop­u­la­tion even­tu­al­ly becom­ing extinct and not being expressed any longer. And so I think there’s a poten­tial threat to mis­di­ag­nose the prob­lem and erase it from the expres­sion of human diver­si­ty that we cur­rent­ly see. And not just human diver­si­ty, but also cul­tur­al rich­ness that comes from nat­ur­al forms of what we cur­rent­ly call disability. 

So where do you draw the line and who’s going to be mak­ing the deci­sions of what gets expressed and what doesn’t get expressed? And even if we’re going to be look­ing at the ide­al form as being the dom­i­nant form, what hap­pens to the forms that aren’t expressed as often? And so whose hands are going to be involved in the pot?

Church: I just have to say that I think there’s increas­ing dis­cus­sion of how we can increase diver­si­ty rather than decrease it. I think this is incred­i­bly impor­tant. And with many of our tech­nolo­gies, we do see an increase. There is not the ide­al mode of trans­porta­tion. In the same sense, there won’t be the ide­al of a human being or ani­mal or plant.

I think that we can, each of us, dis­cuss this broad­ly, what we mean by the advances of diver­si­ty. But the les­son that we’ve learned time and again with nat­ur­al evo­lu­tion, and in engi­neer­ing, is that diver­si­ty is an extreme­ly good thing. We’re not talk­ing about just diver­si­ty of cul­ture and col­or, but actu­al bio­log­i­cal diver­si­ty, neur­al diver­si­ty. Many, I think, peo­ple in acad­e­mia are extreme val­ues in things that could be clas­si­fied as dele­te­ri­ous under the wrong cir­cum­stances. So I don’t think that the tech­nol­o­gy itself nec­es­sar­i­ly pre­scribes one or the oth­er. We need to do that as a com­mu­ni­ty discussion.

Phelan: And you men­tioned the idea of gene dri­ves I think cre­at­ing the ide­al, lim­it­ed, diverse human pop­u­la­tion. This is already going on today with preim­plan­ta­tion genet­ic diag­nos­tics, where cou­ples or indi­vid­u­als are mak­ing selec­tions to reduce embryos that are car­ry­ing dele­te­ri­ous muta­tions. So I think this is some­thing that is unleashed, its in cur­rent med­ical prac­tice, and is only going to increase with or with­out gene dri­ves. Don’t you think, George?

Church: Well, yes. I mean, in fact in America 80% of gen­der selec­tion is for female, so we might all be female some­day soon. Which might not be so bad. But the point is that to the extent that we can cul­tur­al­ly encour­age peo­ple choos­ing a diver­si­ty, not some life-threatening dis­ease that caus­es pain in their child for years until they die, but there’s many oth­er things that are sub­thresh­old. It’s not clear that every­body would pick the same traits, but I think it’s a very impor­tant dis­cus­sion. It’s good that we’re hav­ing it in advance of some things, but we’re cer­tain­ly not in advance of in vit­ro fertilization.

Palmer: We’ll have the chance to take these last two quick ques­tions, and then we’ll have a clos­ing com­ment from our our panelists.

Audience 4: Thank you. So, with regard to the de-extinction project, obvi­ous­ly there’s a whole globe of eth­i­cal ques­tions around genet­ic engi­neer­ing. Is any con­sid­er­a­tion being giv­en to the avail­abil­i­ty or lack of avail­abil­i­ty of habi­tat for cer­tain kinds of species?

Phelan: Yes. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, is the orga­niz­ing body world­wide that deals with the Red List (that’s how peo­ple will refer to it) to deter­mine whether or not a species gets put on that list. With Revive & Restore, we have helped shape de-extinction guide­lines. And one of the very first ques­tions, or one of the very first criteria—and there’s like twenty-five items listed—is whether or not there is appro­pri­ate habi­tat for a rein­tro­duced species to flour­ish. It’s absolute­ly fundamental. 

Other cri­te­ria I’ll just men­tion include ensur­ing that the pur­pose of de-extinction is to actu­al­ly encour­age the flour­ish­ing of the species in its nat­ur­al habi­tat, not to be a zoo spec­i­men or a curios­i­ty, that the under­ly­ing jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is there. And oth­er cri­te­ria include that the orig­i­nal source of the extinc­tion, the cause of the extinc­tion, whether it was hunt­ing or poach­ing or pol­lu­tion, has been removed and is not going to be an ongo­ing concern.

And then all the issues of ani­mal safe­ty and wel­fare and mon­i­tor­ing are part of that. But habi­tat has been the pri­ma­ry cause of much of the con­ser­va­tion move­ment, its focus, and I think right­ly so. It’s been an issue, but increas­ing­ly we now have new chal­lenges for species which are wildlife dis­eases, inva­sive species, and I should say alien wildlife dis­eases that are tak­ing down in many cas­es bot­tle­neck pop­u­la­tions. And so that’s why these new tech­nolo­gies are so awesome. 

Palmer: One last ques­tion, then we’ll give you guys a chance to—

Audience 5: I have a tremen­dous­ly ple­beian ques­tion. All the things you’re dis­cussing are excit­ing and scary in a good way and in a bad way. But there is some­thing that we haven’t talked about, which is reg­u­la­tion of things that are going on. There’s been a CRISPR prod­uct intro­duced on to the mar­ket. There’s a mush­room. It was edit­ed in that way. There was no reg­u­la­tion, no dis­cus­sion. Now, intel­lec­tu­al­ly I under­stand that. They’re not chang­ing genes, they’re not intro­duc­ing genes from out­side. But if you’re wor­ried about the pub­lic adopt­ing a new tech­nol­o­gy, there’s a lot of peo­ple who are not going to be hap­py that we’re sud­den­ly just intro­duc­ing this kind of thing with­out any dis­cus­sion what­so­ev­er any­where. I don’t know what the reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work should be, but maybe you do.

Palmer: I think this is a… I’m real­ly glad you brought it up. You know, we have a biotech­nol­o­gy reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work, the Coordinated Framework. It was devel­oped in the 80s. A lot of things have changed since then. But it’s been kind of a polit­i­cal hot pota­to to look at it and re-question whether or not the assump­tions and the way we broke down the rules at that time still apply today. 

But actu­al­ly, right now, the OSTP in the White House as well as oth­ers are recon­sid­er­ing the frame­work for the first time, and try­ing to ask some of the same ques­tions that you are. And that’s a per­fect exam­ple of where the com­ment thread is either under­pop­u­lat­ed or overpop­u­lat­ed when we go to pub­lic com­ment. So this is actu­al­ly a per­fect oppor­tu­ni­ty where there are some peo­ple who are try­ing to take the next steps. Where your opin­ion should be part of that dis­cus­sion, to fig­ure out how do we not nec­es­sar­i­ly demo­nize a spe­cif­ic tech­nol­o­gy, but focus on what do we want that tech­nol­o­gy to do, and how can we ensure that it’s safe enough, and apply­ing in all the oth­er aspects that we might want.

So, I want to thank you for your ques­tions. I want to leave the pan­elists to have one last final com­ment. So you can make a com­ment or, what I would encour­age you to do in the spir­it of dis­obe­di­ence, is tell me what’s the one rule you love to break. Or, is there some­thing that’s even more for­bid­den than the work you told us about that you are think­ing about, and can you share it? And I’ll start with George.

Church: Yeah, well I sup­pose that the main rule that many of us in this room break is being silent sci­en­tists that just do our job. I saw my col­league say that it’s not their respon­si­bil­i­ty to point out some­thing that they see that might be prob­lem­at­ic. Especially if it could cause reper­cus­sions on their fund­ing. So I guess that’s a—you’ve got to admit that’s a per­fect­ly jus­ti­fi­able rule. I don’t feel par­tic­u­lar­ly edgy stat­ing that.

Yeah, I think that…just one com­ment on the GMOs. I think that the mush­rooms and many oth­er appli­ca­tions of CRISPR agri­cul­tur­al­ly have been dis­cussed quite exten­sive­ly. And in fact there’s a great deal of excite­ment that CRISPR caus­es muta­tions with­out intro­duc­ing for­eign genes from oth­er organ­isms, and hence is dif­fer­ent and embrace­able by the pub­lic than ever before. So I think there’s been a lot of dis­cus­sion, but maybe not as much as we should have.

Phelan: You know, I’ve been in health care for three decades. And part of my MO has always been to chal­lenge the med­ical author­i­ty and to give con­sumers access to genomics, access to med­ical infor­ma­tion. And I feel like this change for me in the last five years into con­ser­va­tion is real­ly to help give a voice to those endan­gered species and ecosys­tems. Because we real­ly are stew­ards, and I’m going to go back to the film we start­ed with. Do we have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to think beyond the human impli­ca­tion of these genom­ic tech­nolo­gies which are lead­ing the way, and to start to share some of that tech­nol­o­gy with species that can’t do it on their own. 

Esvelt: Well, one of my favorite para­phras­ings of a promi­nent mem­ber of the National Academy… So, my friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor Ken Oye here at MIT was at a National Academy meet­ing dis­cussing gene dri­ve and our deci­sion to go pub­lic before demon­strat­ing it. And this emi­nent sci­en­tist who shall remain name­less stood up, and Ken’s para­phras­ing of what he said was, Don’t tell the Muggles.” We believe it’s impor­tant to tell the Muggles.

But that’s hard, because I’m also inter­est­ed in cor­rect­ing what I see as the fun­da­men­tal flaw of evo­lu­tion; we’re the Sculpting Evolution group. But evo­lu­tion is amoral. And that’s hard because that means that nature is amoral. If what we believe is moral­ly opti­mal is human or ani­mal flour­ish­ing, well­be­ing, evo­lu­tion hasn’t opti­mized for that. Do we need to do that? Should we begin build­ing organ­isms where we’ve engi­neered them for opti­mal flour­ish­ing and well­be­ing? Do we under­stand enough to do that? Because if we do, then there’s cer­tain­ly a moral argu­ment that we should. But I’m not cer­tain that the moral arc of progress, such as it were, has bent far enough to have that dis­cus­sion yet. And that direct­ly con­flicts with the need to tell the Muggles.

Palmer: I want to thank all of our pan­elists. I can’t pos­si­bly tell you about all the for­bid­den things that I’m think­ing about. But appar­ent­ly we’ve already bro­ken the rule of going a lit­tle bit over time, so thank you for your time.


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