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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