Harder, Better, Faster, CRISPR

The dawn of a new age flashed across the news this summer – dateline Oregon: scientists from the US, China and South Korea together had tweaked the genes of a living human embryo to correct an inherited flaw that has caused heart failure and sudden death in a lot of young athletes.  And so, finally, suddenly we enter the CRISPR age in bio-technology, when human science takes charge of the human genetic lifeline, to fix it here, tune it there, perhaps re-tailor it in useful ways.  We could be doing it soon with hundred-dollar DIY kits, at home. The Chinese are doing it, too.

As the pioneer in the CRISPR breakthrough Jennifer Doudna says: we have the ability now to edit the DNA of every living person and future generations, too.  “In essence,” Doudna writes, it means the power “to direct the evolution of our own species.”  “Unprecedented in the history of life on earth,” she adds, “beyond our comprehension,” and raising “impossible but essential” questions for which as individuals and as a species, we are “woefully unprepared.”  Jennifer Doudna’s colleague at UC-Berkeley, Michael Eisen starts off our conversation this week. He’s a genetic biologist — who works mainly on fruit flies — and a member of the Berkeley team that epically battled against the MIT-Harvard-Broad Institute faction, over patent claims on CRISPR and its applications.  Online, Michael Eisen has eloquently argued against the whole idea of patenting a public resource.

Ben Mezrich who dreamed up “The Social Network” about the making of Facebook and the IT billionaire class. He has a new block-buster in book form, soon to be a movie called “Woolly,” about the mammoth last seen as the Ice Age melted down. The human hero of the story is George Church —  the giant Harvard biologist who means to revive the woolly mammoth with its DNA and his own CRISPR tools. Imagine Indiana Jones in Jurassic Park. 


Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA: “The Crossroads of the Biotech World”

Antonio Regalado is a key journalist on the CRISPR beat, a minute-to-minute reporter online for the Tech Review, which is owned and managed by MIT.  Among the levels of his CRISPR coverage: the science, the people who do it, the motivations and the money. He tells us:

People are getting rich. In the case of the CRISPR companies, I can see how many shares the scientific founders from around Cambridge have and the amounts are large: eight, nine million, ten million dollars. And yet when I interact with the scientists themselves—George Church, for instance with his sort of lumpy shoes, you know, does money motivate him? He doesn’t act like it. So I think fundamentally I’ve got to believe that people are motivated by the fact that they’re discovering stuff and the glory and that is worth more than the money. But I might be naive.

There are agitated voices inside biology and outside it who want to be heard in the CRISPR conversation, and we invited two of them to speak up. Robert Pogue Harrison is humanities professor, a Dante specialist, at Stanford who podcasts on a great variety of civilized subjects.  Earlier this summer when the Templeton Foundation brought the superstars of CRISPR world to a weekend retreat in California, Robert Harrison was invited to sit in alongside George Church of Harvard and Jennifer Doudna of Berkeley, and speak for the long philosophical and moral view of a scientific revolution. On the phone this week Professor Harrison told us he came away from that meeting more perturbed than he went in. What struck him most was the widespread sanguinity among the scientists.  Under the azure Californian sky, CRISPR-potentiated nightmare scenarios seemed impossible to imagine:

My sense was that most of the people there felt or at least pretended to feel assured that as long as we all remain reasonable as long as we all put our minds together and make informed decisions about CRISPR’s use that everything’s going to be fine. I would have preferred more discussion of the potentially destructive and even catastrophic risks that such a technology introduces into the biosphere.


Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University News Office

Ting Wu leads a genetic biology lab at the Harvard Medical School. And she’s married to her most famous colleague George Church, with whom she has had running debates morning and night for most of 30 years.  In her office this week we asked her to draw some lines she argues over with her husband. She told us: “I am not a line drawer.”  Rather, she’s more of a potentialist — a firm believer that the happiness of future descendents will be largely determined by our willingness to allow for a panoply of personal genetic expressions.

See a full transcript of this show on Medium.

Guest List
Michael Eisen
computational biologist and professor of Genetics, Genomics and Development at University of California, Berkeley
Ting Wu
professor of Genetics at Harvard University and the Director and Co-founder of pgEd
Robert Pogue Harrison
professor in Italian Literature at Stanford University and author of Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age.  He is a podcasting maestro at Entitled Opinions.
Antonio Regalado
senior editor at MIT Technology Review

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  • The first thing regarding CRISPR is to put aside fear, to embrace the threshold-ness, the existential liminality of modernity.

    33:20 “We’re on this very interesting threshold which we’ve been on for hundreds of years in a way for each invention we make.” – Ting Wu

    “In the case of the smallest or of the greatest happiness, however, it is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness: the ability to forget or, expressed in more scholarly fashion, the
    capacity to feel unhistorically during its duration. He who cannot sink down on the threshold of the moment, and forget all the past, who cannot stand balanced like a goddess of victory without growing dizzy and afraid, will never know what happiness is; worse, he will never do anything to make others happy.
    Imagine the extremest possible example of a man who did not possess the power of forgetting at all and who was thus condemned to see everywhere a state of becoming: such a man would no longer believe in his own being, would no longer believe in himself, would see everything flowing asunder in moving points and would lose himself in this stream of becoming: like a true pupil of Heraclitus, he would in the end hardly dare to raise his finger. Forgetting is essential to action of any kind, just as not only light but darkness too is essential for the life of everything organic. A man who wanted to feel historically through and through would be like one forcibly deprived of sleep, or an animal that had to live only by rumination and ever repeated rumination.
    Thus: it is possible to live almost without memory, and to live happily moreover, as the animal demonstrates; but it is altogether impossible to live at all without forgetting. Or, to express my theme even more simply: there is a degree of sleeplessness, of rumination, of the historical sense, which is harmful and ultimately fatal to the living thing whether this living thing be a man or a people or a culture.”
    – Friedrich Nietzsche: Untimely Meditations

  • Will W.

    Intriguing discussion on gene editing, even if it arrives to us a little late in the day. So much for scientists and ethics, although Dr. Harrison seems to point in the correct direction – one which is the least self-justifying.

  • Ralph Stuart

    Looking out 500 years seems rather unnecessary; my grandfather graduated from high school 100 years ago, before the periodic table was a teaching tool. He spent 30 years as a lab tech in the chemical industry and I have spent 30 years working to remediate the side effects of his industry. If physics and chemistry can change society that much in 100 years, it’s clear to me that biology will raise even larger moral questions.

    One leading one question, as outlined in Orphan Black, is how will the 1% who can afford curated genetics regard the 99% of their fellows who can’t? Now that TrumpWorld has restarted History as the story of Heroic Individuals, both Historic and Gendered answers must be included in the response.

    – Ralph Stuart

  • disqus_qluEAj8JpT

    The unpurged images of day recede;
    The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
    Night resonance recedes, night-walkers’ song
    After great cathedral gong;
    A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
    All that man is,
    All mere complexities,
    The fury and the mire of human veins.

    Before me floats an image, man or shade,
    Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
    For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
    May unwind the winding path;
    A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
    Breathless mouths may summon;
    I hail the superhuman;
    I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.


  • unhandyandy

    Is it possible that our real objection to this technology is that it may strip us of some precious illusions about ourselves? If too much about our identity can be offered on a menu, does that mean it’s not really an identity? Is there anything left that’s us?

    Maybe we should embrace CRISPR and Buddhism (e.g. the self is an illusion) simultaneously. Hannah Arendt put her finger on the “problem” without demonstrating it’s a problem.