This Scientist Says Your Fears About The Coming Genetic Engineering Revolution Are Overblown

This week, hundreds of scientists from around the world are descending on Washington D.C. for a three-day summit on a new technique that has spurred a major genetic revolution.

Thanks to a gene-editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9, it is now not only possible, but easy, cheap and fast, to change, delete or replace genes in any plant or animal, including people. The range of hypothetical ways CRISPR could change our lives is staggering — from creating wheat that is invulnerable to mildew to curing the world’s most intractable diseases. Anything that has DNA, which is to say, every living thing on earth, can now be more easily manipulated than ever before.

When it comes to the human genome, especially, this raises fears as much as it raises hopes. You don’t have to dip that deeply into science fiction literature to imagine how badly it might go when scientists begin editing human DNA. Scientists are not immune to these fears, either. One of the scientists who developed the technique told the New Yorker’s Michael Specter that she recently dreamt about Adolf Hitler, who told her, “I want to understand the uses and implications of this amazing technology.”

George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says he thinks such fears are healthy. Concerns about how the use of CRISPR could go wrong are partly what spurred the conference, which is organized jointly by the US National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the U.K. Royal Society, and will focus on the ethics of editing human DNA.

Church is presenting at the conference, on a panel on human germ line modification — a technique that involves actively changing the genes that are passed on to future generations —> Read More