This post is part of a series I am writing about gene editing technology.
In a nutshell, gene editing is going to enable us to manipulate and understand the genetic basis of biological life faster and more effectively than we ever have previously.
Once you are familiar with the technical details of gene editing, the real question is what will the technical advances of gene editing be used to achieve? Bill Gates has spent most of his life since Microsoft on charitable work that aims to tackle poverty and inequity around the world. He has recently written on the potential for gene editing to be a powerful tool for doing good, saying:
Over the next decade, gene editing could help humanity overcome some of the biggest and most persistent challenges in global health and development.
So if we take the cue from Bill Gates and focus not so much on the technical details of gene editing, but more broadly on how it could and should impact on our lives going forward, then the following themes and questions are raised in my mind:
- Oversight: Will gene editing activities be overseen to ensure the technology is used for the good of society?
- Global challenges: Can gene editing be harnessed to play a definitive positive role in tackling humanity’s greatest challenges: global warming, environmental degradation, infectious disease, poverty?
- Technological access: Who will have access to these powerful new technologies?
- Corporate power: How will these technologies be used by private companies and multinational corporations, which have distinct legal existence separate from the individuals that they employ to do genome editing, and also distinct motivations that are not always aligned with communities and countries that they operate within? What will they want to do with them?
- Transparency and consumer rights: Should consumers be able to know when genome editing has been used to produce certain products, so they can use that information to make purchasing decisions? If not, why not?
- Ethics: How do the different applications of gene editing sit with our ethical beliefs?
- Germline changes: Can the genome editing of viable human zygotes (so that the changes will be inherited by the next generation) be ethically justified? What about for other species, especially where it is already being done?
- Global domestication: Will the widespread application of gene editing impact our relation with nature? Will the long-term logical conclusion of human efforts to modify our environment, including to reprogram biological life, be the cultivation and domestication of all aspects of the natural world?
- Equity of access: Will there be equitable access to new products and services based on gene editing?
- Human health: Can gene editing technology cure human disease?
- No, we can’t cure old age, but many rare Mendelian diseases could be treated, either somatically or in the germline.
- We could probably obtain moderate improvements in general health, but the tradeoffs are likely to be manifold.
I undoubtedly missed a few important questions, but then I am just a computational biologist! Suffice to say I think the wider discussion on genome editing needs to involve a much broader range of thinkers that goes far beyond the technical details of the technology and semantic arguments about whether or not it is indeed genetic engineering (of course it is!).
Perspectives are inherently subjective
Perspectives never develop in a vacuum, even for an ‘expert’. I have a particular perspective on gene editing and it derives from my prior knowledge and experience. My conscious biases include but are not limited to:
- being an atheist
- being generally enthusiastic about technological advancement (i.e. futurist)
- being skeptical about the ability of corporations to consistently act for the common good
- having an ethical view that values a significant element of life on earth remaining wild
- believing in evidence and evidence-based reasoning
- in particular being convinced by the evidence that global warming is mainly driven by human activity
- believing in transparency, open science and open technologies
- believing that most of humanity’s problems are now global and we need - but lack - effective intergovernmental organisations to tackle them.
I couldn’t possibly comment on my unconscious biases :)
So yes, personally I am a futurist, and I love the possibilities that are opened up by gene editing. I would like to see the technology used for good. I think that scientists should have significant freedom within well-defined ethical boundaries to use gene editing technologies in suitably controlled environments for the purpose of extending humanity’s knowledge of biology and tackling our greatest challenges.
But I worry about the increasing lack of ability of governments to effectively regulate (or even tax) multinational corporations, especially those that have outsized impacts on our daily lives and effective monopolies on critical resources. So I am more circumspect in my opinion about how easily private companies and multinational corporations should be able to employ these technologies in an unregulated way. I think that any technology that can significantly modify our shared environment needs sufficient oversight of its application from government and intergovernmental organisations to ensure the technology is employed for the greater good. If genome editing technologies get as easy and cheap as the biotechnologists are promising they will, then their use by for-profit entities needs to be overseen, consumer rights protected and the legal limits of application carefully considered.
Further reading about gene editing: