Kevin Esvelt Joins the Media Lab

by Joi Ito, Media Lab Director

Kevin Esvelt accepted our offer and will be joining us in January as an assistant professor heading his new Sculpting Evolution research group.

Kevin is a Harvard-trained biologist who is merging some of the newest techniques in molecular biology with ecological engineering. He contributed to the development of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology, and was responsible for revealing the possibility of CRISPR gene drives. CRISPR gene drives allow us to edit the genomes of existing organisms and force all subsequent offspring to inherit the alteration. This could, for instance, allow us to release mosquitoes into the wild and over time eliminate the ability for the populations of wild mosquitoes to carry malaria, dengue, or other diseases. Other possible applications include eliminating Lyme disease by permanently immunizing the mice who transmit the disease to ticks, eradicating the blood fluke parasite responsible for schistosomiasis, and even alleviating the need for harmful pesticides by programming pests so they do not want to eat our crops.

As you might imagine, there is a tremendous amount of upside, but also quite a bit of fear and some real risks. One of the key things that Kevin is working on, in addition to figuring how we might deploy these technologies, is to develop safety technologies to ensure that laboratory accidents don’t affect the environment as well as an “undo” version that could be released if we wanted to revert the edit.

Kevin and George Church published the first papers on CRISPR gene drives even before starting experiments because they wanted to set a precedent that conversations on responsible use should start early. One of the key things about CRISPR is its low cost — add CRISPR gene drive, and the number of bio facilities able to release potentially world-changing alterations will only grow with time.

At the Media Lab’s 30th anniversary event this past October, Kevin asked the audience, “Who should decide?” Who can responsibly make the decision whether we should release these mosquitos and potentially eliminate malaria or allow us to reduce the tons of pesticides we are using, knowing that at the same time we will risk altering our ecosystem in irreversible ways? In a country where the majority of people don’t believe in evolution and where we have a Congress that can’t even get behind the idea that climate change is a critical issue, it’s a hard question.

At our secret meeting with JJ Abrams, Kevin explained that we not only need to decide how to deal with world-changing new science like CRISPR and gene drive, but that we also need to prepare ourselves for a world where the rate at which these world-changing sciences are discovered continues to increase. It is critical for us to understand how to responsibly make decisions as society and as scientists.

We hope that the Media Lab can play a critical role in the discovery of these new technologies, the discussion around their impact, as well as the responsible design and deployment of them. We believe that design in the context of science provides reflection and ethical considerations at a fundamental level. No one discipline should ever be developed in isolation from the many other lenses on the world; the Media Lab has held this as a guiding principle for 30 years. As this new science around gene editing comes online, we are happy it does so here, where science is bound to design, much as it is in Esvelt himself.

This post originally appeared on Joi Ito’s personal blog, Joi Ito’s Web.