The biggest news of 2015 was recognition that new abilities to edit specific genes will transform life itself, transform it utterly. Simple enough to be implemented in labs everywhere, the CRISPR-Cas9 technique replaces a specified DNA sequence with a chosen alternative. The system has revolutionized genetic research, and it offers hope to those with genetic diseases. It also makes it easy, however, to change future generations. It even lends itself to creating “gene-drives” that can, in just a few generations, replace a given sequence in all members of a sexually reproducing species. A terrible beauty has been born.
The possibilities are beyond our imagining, but some are already real. Trials in caged mosquitos demonstrate fast transmission of a new gene providing resistance to malaria. If released into the wild, the gene could spread and eliminate malaria. Would it? What else would it do? No one knows. Other gene drives could entirely eliminate a species. Good riddance to smallpox, but what would happen to ecosystems without mice and mosquitoes? No one knows.
Specters from the Disney cartoon The Sorcerer’s Apprentice come to mind. How will a species with limited ability to control itself use such vast new power? The answer will determine the future of our species and life on this planet. In a remarkable demonstration of transparency and foresight, the National Academy of Sciences organized a meeting earlier this month with sibling organizations from the UK and China to discuss the opportunities and threats. The risks were taken seriously, but there was little consensus on where this technology will take us, and how or if we can control it. It seems likely that it will transform our species and life itself, fast. How, no one knows.