The “Deciphering and Manipulating the Genetic Code” Panel with (from left to right) Julie Rovner, David Baltimore, Eric Schadt, Ethan Bier, and Anthony James.
ASPEN – Drs. David Baltimore, Eric Schadt, Ethan Bier, and Anthony James took the stage last week during Spotlight Health at the Aspen Ideas Festival to discuss the advancements made in our ability to manipulate genetic code. These four scientists are on the leading edge of genetic research, a rapidly expanding field with lifesaving potential, but also with serious ethical dilemmas.
Dr. Baltimore, a Nobel Prize winning biologist, was the first to speak for the panel, describing the remarkable progress scientists have made in the last 60 years since DNA was first discovered.
The discovery of CRISPR has scientists particularly excited. Found in bacteria, this system can “change any one of the 3 billion nucleotides in our genome into something else.”
This discovery has opened the floodgates to a myriad of potential uses. One of the first is somatic therapy – treating DNA that is isolated to a certain number of cells and not inherited. The next step would be addressing hereditary diseases and ensuring babies do not inherit them. “This is doable within the next five years,” said Dr. Baltimore.
“And in the next ten years or more,” Dr. Baltimore asserted, “I can imagine doing things a lot more questionable than that,” referring to altering “designer” traits such as height and intelligence.
That’s where the ethical debate comes in. We know this technology is a part of our future, but how much of a role will it play?
To this end, Dr. Ethan Bier provided some unnerving data. If scientists infect one percent of mosquitoes with a gene (a technology they possess), in only ten generations the gene will have spread through the whole population of mosquitoes.
There are benefits to this capability as Dr. Anthony James points out. Currently, we can put a rat’s immune system DNA into a mosquito to prevent it from carrying malaria. This could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives, and billions of dollars per year.
However, there is an obvious second edge to this sword. First, we know diversity plays a leading role in an ecology’s success; ecosystems with high biodiversity are more resilient than those with low biodiversity. If one important species in a low-biodiversity community crashes, the whole system can fail. It’s the same case with in an economy. If everyone in an economy specializes in one field, and if for some reason that field’s demand is interrupted or ended, the economy would take a huge hit. There are fewer Plan B’s with less diversity.
Second, there are aesthetic and moral dilemmas. Just because we can, should we challenge nature? Our environment is so complicated and time-tested; do we know what waters we are wading into? Do we have a right, as animals of this world to enact such permanency?
In closing, I will leave you with a thought experiment Dr. Biel proposed: If we developed a mosquito that protected us from cancer, but it replaced all other mosquitos, should we release it?