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The media, synthetic biology and CRISPR - fears vs. reality

10 April 2017
Appeared in BioNews 896

A recent Wall Street Journal article, 'DIY Gene Editing: Fast, Cheap – and Worrisome', describes the Saturday afternoon of teenager, Kian Sadeghi, as he learns to use CRISPR/Cas9 at the Genspace Community Lab in Brooklyn, New York.

Like many news articles, the main angle of the article is that new science and technology present a problem. Within the first three paragraphs reference is made to the moral concerns surrounding Dolly the sheep, the potential for research by 'people with nefarious intent', and the possibility that someone may accidentally cause an environmental apocalypse by releasing an organism that appears harmless but 'turns out to wreak havoc on the environment'. The article's tone is one of caution and wariness – what is the potential of this technology, and can we trust people to use it in a safe way?

However, while the title suggests an issue that needs to be dealt with, there is little to be concerned with. For example, for $150 we are informed that one can purchase a do-it-yourself CRISPR kit to conduct five scientific experiments. One of these experiments, if conducted correctly, will alter brewer's yeast and turn the cells red. Hardly worrying or likely to herald impending doom.

Furthermore, the second half of the article is primarily concerned with snippets of conversations with school teachers and lab operatives. No questions are answered, and no suggestions made for real reform. And herein lies the problem – CRISPR is not the first technology to raise these issues, and this is a conversation that has done the rounds all too recently with synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology is now a 'teenage science' in comparison with CRISPR. It raised the same issues almost 10 years ago which have now been transferred to CRISPR almost ad verbatim. Take another WSJ article from 2009, 'In Attics and Closets, 'Biohackers' Discover Their Inner Frankenstein'. This article is also concerned with the fears that do-it-yourself biologists or so-called 'biohackers' with, again, 'nefarious intent', may use mail-order DNA in community lab spaces to recreate deadly microorganisms, to the detriment of all.

As people realised then – and will also realise in relation to CRISPR – these problems are unlikely to occur in community labs, which are often kitted out with second-hand lab equipment and lack the government-level funding one would need to successfully weaponise harmful organisms, or to make them stable enough to survive outside a strictly controlled environment. Just like CRISPR in community labs today, most amateur synthetic biologist enthusiasts were working on small experiments with yeast cultures, changing their colours or smells.

Undoubtedly, fears raised in relation to new sciences and technology should not be ignored. But their representation in the media should also come under closer scrutiny. The problem is not that community lab experiments are being conducted, but that people fear the unknown. Just like synthetic biology, putting the new science of CRISPR in the hands of DIY biologists seems to place the consequences of the science in unknown territory. But in reality, it does not.  

Returning to the CRISPR WSJ article, Dana Waring Bateman, co-founder and education director at Harvard University's Personal Genetics Education Project (pgEd) created a programme for schoolchildren which focuses on the history of CRISPR and genome editing. Following a discussion on whether CRISPR should be used to bring extinct animals back to life, one student asks, 'How can we decide if we aren't sure what will happen?' Bateman replies that such questions will increasingly be part of public debate.

This, in my opinion, is the only way we can ensure safe progression of new science and technology without the need to stifle scientific research. Public engagement for new sciences and technologies, like CRISPR, synthetic biology, and many others like them is the only feasible way to ensure that people have an understanding of what research is being conducted, and what the potential applications are.

One example of such public engagement was a Biology Week event titled 'Synthetic Life - How Far Could It Go? How Far Should It Go?', reviewed for BioNews 825. The event saw questions posed to a public audience on the research applications of synthetic biology, with results showing that people can be accepting of research that would directly improve their own lives, but are more hesitant when faced with the potential something might affect the environment in uncontrollable ways.

So while it is unlikely that sensational media reports will cease, engagement between scientists, the public, and regulators is the best way to encourage understanding of new research. Biology Week, or programs like the pgEd which work with schoolchildren and government officials alike, present the best way to ensure that the fear of the unknown is reduced. In turn, this understanding can be reflected in safe progression of scientific research; a progression that can be anticipated and welcomed, instead of feared and repelled.

5 June 2017 - by Charlotte Spicer 
CRISPR may introduce hundreds of unwanted mutations into the genome, a small study finds...
7 November 2016 - by Annabel Slater 
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...
31 October 2016 - by Jen Willows 
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics presented its preliminary report 'Genome editing: an ethical review' in the genteel surroundings of the Royal Geographical Society in South Kensington...
13 June 2016 - by Rhys Baker 
Over just 30 minutes Fergus Walsh has a lot of ground to cover here without even touching on the ethical debate. Yet, while gene editing may have 'just been made simple', how we respond to these stunning advances is anything but...
25 January 2016 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
We report from the fourth session of annual conference of the Progress Educational Trust, titled 'Germline in the Sand: The Ethics and Law of Engineering the Embryo', which discussed the ethics of human embryo genome editing...
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