Redesigning Life: How Genome Editing Will Transform the World
Published by Oxford University Press
ISBN-10: 0198766823, ISBN-13: 978-0198766827
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Dr John Parrington thinks the ethics of genome editing should be shaped by scientifically informed public debate, and he hopes his book will provide a starting point. Redesigning Life is a comprehensive history of the research and discoveries underlying genome editing, as well as a broad coverage of research in the present day. What some readers may find lacking, however, is some guidance in how to devise those ethics now and in the future.
Is genome manipulation such a new phenomenon, asks Parrington, before taking the reader through classic examples of domesticated animals, from dogs to cats to livestock. The consequences of science on human culture and evolution is always present through frequent examples. There is the theory that the whites of our eyes allowed us to communicate with domesticated wolves better than Neanderthals, or that farming pigs may have changed our sense of smell. Parrington then takes us through the underlying science of DNA, mutations and inheritance, including a comprehensive history of genetic modification and its most useful tools – such as tagging genes with glowing proteins to make them visible in the lab, or switching genes on or off using light (a technology known as 'optogenetics').
Throughout his book, Parrington is mindful of the ethical issues that accompany these scientific discoveries. He never elevates the potential rewards of scientific research over human values. For example, he acknowledges that using animals in research may make some feel 'queasy', but this is based on 'a reasonable wish that other species be treated with respect and dignity'. Most chapters begin by acknowledging how culture has framed expectation and debate about scientific breakthroughs. For instance, he begins the chapter on genetic modification by acknowledging how literary arts – ancient Greek myths of defying the gods, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein – have long been used to generate public controversy and interest in the idea of changing life.
It's not until chapter four that we are introduced to genome editing, using CRISPR/Cas9. At which point Parrington decides that yet more context and background is needed. The following two chapters are dedicated to explaining which animal models are most used in scientific research and why, and how the pre-CRISPR tools of genetic modification were applied to agriculture, and the ensuing negative public reaction. He explains how genome editing could update the practices in these areas. The next few chapters look at how genome editing can be applied to solve diseases in ways which were not previously possible, for example, through its application to embryonic stem cells, bacteria and synthetic cells.
His final chapter is the largest and most speculative, and looks at the impact that genome editing could have in the future. Here Parrington uses several literary works of utopias – or, more frequently, dystopias – to frame his discussion of how genome editing could be used to devise treatments for diseases, or improve human traits such as learning and sporting performance. He displays a particular fascination with Margaret Atwood's book 'Oryx and Crake', which he refers to multiple times, and which describes a dystopian society where genetic modification is commonplace and society dominated by corporate modified products.
The book presents a broad coverage of technical developments, and occasionally, the progression from one interesting example of research to another can be quite dizzying. There are some enjoyable descriptions and anecdotes that help to turn famous names into actual people and personalities. Kary Mullis, a Nobel prize-winning scientist inspired by LSD. Genentech, the modern biotech behemoth, developed through a partnership between an unemployed banker living off peanut-butter sandwiches and a microbiologist. The discovery of the significance of CRISPR sequences by Jennifer Doudna while studying a bacterium from a mine, thinking to herself that it was 'the most obscure thing I'd ever worked upon'.
The book's tone resembles a talk by an excellent science communicator. Parrington explains scientific developments without resorting to frequent jargon or using value-laden language to generate excitement. He describes how genome editing could be used to eliminate troublesome animal viruses from animals, which could be bred to provide organs for transplant. This is a potentially groundbreaking achievement, but he offers a cautionary acknowledgement of the difficulties and finishes with a reference to the ethical questions it could raise.
Parrington emphasises the limitations of genome editing, and the importance of nurture and environment even in creating a genius like Albert Einstein, or a musical talent like Mozart. He also remarks that while our society is capable of coming up with great tools for scientific innovation and change, we seem to lack the political will to stop problems that could threaten humanity as a whole – such as climate change, and overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. He warns against using genome editing as a 'quick fix' to such wider problems. The future of genetic modification, he says, will hold as much social questions as it does scientific ones, and perspectives in any democratic society can only be changed through maximum open public debate.
Yet, I did find the balanced and cautious tone disappointing. How much does learning about all these case studies help to answer the ethical questions raised? Who are the organisations and governing bodies that will be making the decisions about the regulation and application of genome editing, and how? As a scientist who has long worked in the field of molecular biology, Parrington could more clearly state his own opinions and experience regarding the regulation, political guidance, or commercialism of the science of genome editing. An informed public still needs to hear the opinions of experts. Instead, the impression is that he is a neutral non-commentator, incredibly well informed about science, who wants to point out where there are ethical questions raised, but not to take them any further towards resolution himself.
Even in a brief section discussing regulation of genome editing in relation to particularly frightening topics, such as bioterrorism, Parrington retains a thoughtful, scientific tone when the reader might think he could afford to be much more opinionated. His approach is to explain why somebody genome editing a bioweapon is unlikely to be doing so for scientific reasons, and ends with a mild conclusion that such possibilities pose further questions that will need to be carefully considered. Of course they will require careful consideration. But what are his recommendations for the answers, I wanted to know?
Nonetheless, it is such an informative book. It is exhaustively indexed and referenced, and provides a broad look at the unfolding science that is on the cusp of impacting our lives. Perhaps expecting explicit opinions and advice on the ethics of genome editing as well is simply too much to ask.
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