The risks and rewards of genetic engineering, animated

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The risks and rewards of genetic engineering, animated

Pioneering biologist David Baltimore on the ethical quandary of engineering 'cures'

This animation was produced by Massive and the Director of Sciences at Pioneer Works, Janna Levin. The beautiful animation was hand-cut and filmed  by director and artist Andrew Benincasa.  

Massive co-founder Nadja Oertelt interviewed Caltech biologist and winner of the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, David Baltimore, for this animated piece. Baltimore helped assemble and run the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA, held the same year he won the Nobel. His work along with others at MIT led to the discovery of reverse transcriptase and retroviruses, eventually up-ending a central dogma in molecular biology of information flow within the cell. 

The video was produced in collaboration with Sciences at Pioneer Works for the Scientific Controversies series. David Baltimore and Feng Zhang will discuss genetic engineering with Janna Levin, Director of Science at Pioneer Works on Friday, April 13, 2018. The event is free and open to the public with an RSVP. 

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Comment Peer Commentary

We ask other scientists from our Consortium to respond to articles with commentary from their expert perspective.

Devang Mehta

Genomics

University of Alberta

I disagree with the characterization that editing genes for quantitative traits like height (or more controversially, intelligence) poses an ethical problem because of “off-target effects,” or that this is something that’s never going to be “without risk,” or that it’s fine to use genome editing to gain six inches of height if we know “every effect that that gene has on the body.”

That is a scientific/engineering perspective, not an ethical/moral one. This is important because Baltimore implies that genome editing for physical appearance will be OK, ethically speaking, once we fix the technical problems with using CRISPR.

In my view, the real ethical problem is: Are we as a society OK with editing of traits for no medical purpose? and this leads to: is being taller something that society considers a desirable attribute right now, and will this hold true if everyone/some people can gain six inches of height more? What does this say about society’s treatment of, or perceptions of shorter individuals? and, how should these considerations play into how we regulate the technology as a whole?”

I agree with David Baltimore that it is very unlikely that we will ever be able to predictably alter traits like height or intelligence very well, but that is not a moral or ethical argument against editing them – it’s a technical one.

I think I addressed some of these questions in my earlier essay about genome editing in humans, though in retrospect, and after watching this video, I wish I’d talked about the ethics of non-medical aspects of genome editing more.