This is the first issue of GeneWatch since the Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG) merged with the International Center for Technology Assessment. We are proud to continue the legacy of CRG with this special issue on one of the new kinds of genetic engineering: "gene drives." Most of these articles argue that we should not be using these new kinds of genetic engineering on humans or in organisms to be released into the environment. Gene drives would quickly result in the new genes moving through a population and permanently changing them. We invited one of the proponents of using gene drives to reduce human and animal diseases to write. Kevin Esvelt argues that with proper controls and complete transparency, CRISPR gene editing could be used safely.
The other authors disagree. Even calling this kind of genetic engineering "editing" misleads; we edit books, not dynamic living things. This makes the entire CRISPR gene "editing" metaphor very wrong headed and counterproductive. Phenotypic traits in plants and animals are not "controlled" by one "gene" or even a series of "genes," but rather are the result of complex interactions between DNA and countless other elements in the nucleus and other parts of the cell. This includes not only epigenetic agents (histones) and processes (methylation) but much else we do not understand. This also includes all the processes that occur to proteins after they are formed, some of which we understand and many we do not. As such, modern biology is looking at the cell now as more of an ecosystem, where the DNA is a crucial part - not the composer, the conductor, or the whole orchestra, but just one element in the ecosystem. So, for example, every cell in the human body (except red blood cells) has almost the exact same DNA, yet these cells have remarkably different shapes and functions (bone cells, heart cells, toenail cells etc...), so DNA does not even "control" the function of cells.
We also have explanatory gaps in not understanding really how DNA relates to the creation of cells, cells to creation of tissues, tissues to organs, organs to whole organism systems and then all of that functioning as one organism. There must be a larger organizing principle somewhere, but it certainly is not DNA. That said, another myth is that these new techniques are very precise. This also is not the case as more and more articles discuss the problems with "off-target" effects from CRISPR.
Adding to this complexity is the biome. We have 30 trillion or so cells, but the microbiome in us (bacteria) has 40 trillion cells. And that is crucial not just for digestion but for cognition and other functions. This is also true of other animals, not to mention the microbiome on the roots of plants. So CRISPR (borrowed from how bacteria slice up viruses that invade them), which allows for quicker and somewhat more accurate (but not completely accurate) slicing and dicing of DNA, is only dealing with one part of a far, far more complex puzzle. The hype about it has a lot more to do with public relations and patents and investment than real science or the potential to transform organisms in a reliable and consistent way. Not to say you cannot create a lot of unintended mischief by playing with these techniques, which is its real danger.
So I do take issue with the Science PR machine, the gullible media and even some of our friends in the environment and genetics watchdog community who repeat the hype and fears about these techniques being "successful" without really understanding the biology. This simply advances the "gene myth" and does a disservice to the public. Again, CRISPR scientists can do a lot of harm because they will be slicing and dicing in the dark, but not because they will create the perfect high IQ baby, more nutritious pork chops for all or plants that can get nitrogen from the air. That is all science fiction, not science fact. These new techniques need to be regulated and controlled not because they will work as well as the hype, but because they won't, and they will damage the environment and human health when they don't work well.
Finally, we also include a tribute to our long time board member and friend, Ruth Hubbard, who died in 2016. Ruth was one of the scientists who early on understood that we needed to develop a cadre of scientists and ethicists who monitored closely the development of new genetic technologies. It was largely because of her vision that the Council for Responsible Genetics and GeneWatch magazine were born. We miss her clear voice deeply in this time of rapid change of genetic techniques.
Andy Kimbrell is Executive Director of the International Center for Technology Assessment.