Can CRISPR save humanity from itself?
The co-inventor of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, Jennifer Doudna, very rightly points out the dangers of making germline changes in human beings. She deserves the Nobel not only for her discovery, but equally her strength in advocating for a careful approach. My fear is not people doing evil for its own sake, but people doing evil by doing “good.”
We human beings are merely the enclosing organisms for trillions of dependent organisms. Our cells share the same DNA germline. However, our microbiome is a highly complex and DNA-diverse dependent ecosystem upon which we. as their enclosing organism, also depend and need to feed and protect. But we individuals are also dependent actors in a yet larger and equally complex enclosing organism — the human race.
As we are now learning, DNA expression that results in large scale features like height or autism is not controlled by single nucleotides or small clusters of DNA. Instead, they are the product of thousands of tiny gene intereactions spread across the genome. This is why Doudna limits CRISPER editing to a small group of specific genetic defects known to cause disease.
The entire manufactured human ecosystem, especially our food supply, comprises our Homo sapien extended enclosing organism.
When we introduce new elements into our food supply, such as glyphosate, it may have knock-on effects not only for the human DNA organism, but the thousands of dependent germlines in our microbiome. With unpredictable results.
My fear is that, like the Romans thinking themselves brilliant for inventing lead water pipes and wine goblets, we will introduce some new biological invention that could wipe out humanity in a single generation by massive loss of fertility or viability.
We must look at our entire human species organism as a complex system. The complex interactions that apply to DNA. as Doudna correctly understands, also apply to the human race. In my view, this is the even larger challenge we are facing. The way forward is not to retreat to some imagined idyllic past, but to put the AIs to work and understand what needs to be understood to save ourselves and prosper.
The immediate highest and best use of CRISPER just might be to create “Roundup ready” humans.