When Science Races Ahead of the Scientists

by Guest Blogger,
Tyler A. Kokjohn


The New York Times has examined in a Room for Debate feature whether scientists are able to exert much control over the use of their discoveries (http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/05/28/scientists-curbing-the-ethical-use-of-science).  One of the opinions published, “The Lessons of Asilomar for TFetusoday’s Science” by Alexander Capron, set the current concerns arising over recent editing of human embryo genomes into a historical context and suggests that we should not rely on scientists to make all the decisions for us.

The 1975 Asilomar conference to assess the hazards posed by recombinant DNA experiments and make recommendations for a sensible path forward confirmed that the scientific community has a strong sense of social responsibility.  Recognizing the swift maturation of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology now poses potentially explosive societal challenges, a group of distinguished scientists has called for another moratorium to allow time for a full public discussion of the ethical concerns and potential implications (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2015/03/18/science.aab1028).

The forces propelling scientists forward in 2015 reflect the complexities of a globally distributed capacity to conduct gene editing experiments coupled with clear potential for enormous economic rewards.  Perhaps scientists today are ‘too self-interested and unrepresentative’ to decide how gene editing technology will be used.  Worse, the scientific community and National Academy groups calling for discussions seem almost oblivious to the fact that fast-moving developments in areas beyond human embryo engineering have already overtaken them.

The recent efforts to edit human embryo genes by Chinese scientists galvanized the concern of both scientists and the public.  However, CRISPR-Cas9 editing methods developed in insect hosts have now advanced far beyond the laboratory proof-of-principle or even carefully contained experiment stages (http://www.nature.com/news/regulate-gene-editing-in-wild-animals-1.17523).  Society is now deciding whether to attempt to control human diseases such as Dengue by unleashing ‘gene drives’ to genetically alter wild populations of mosquitoes (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/can-quick-dying-genetically-modified-mosquitos-save-florida-keys-disease/).  The group calling for a moratorium on editing human embryos noted the potential of CRISPR-Cas9 technology to impact the entire biosphere (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2015/03/18/science.aab1028).  It may be unwelcome news to many scientists, but our gene editing future has already barged into the present without their consent.

The sudden convergence of events makes clear that scientists might be unrepresentative of the greater public interest in a most unexpected way; the scope and speed of events has simply outrun even their capacity to keep pace.  The situation is a rude demonstration of the highly specialized and narrow scope of scientific research today.  The bottom line is this; the human embryo work is far behind the gene editing technology development curve.  Whatever discussions we will have about using gene editing technology must be conducted outside the realm of federal meeting rooms and involve the general public.  Expert input from scientists will be critical, but policymakers must seek these broader perspectives urgently.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by it all and unsure of what should be done next, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone.  The scientists are right there with you.


  1. Capron.  2015.  The Lessons of Asilomar for Today’s Science.  The New York Times Room for Debate, 28 May 2015.  (http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/05/28/scientists-curbing-the-ethical-use-of-science).
  2. Baltimore et al., 2015 Aprudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification. Science 348(6230):36-38(http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2015/03/18/science.aab1028
  3. Lunshof.  2015. Regulate gene editing in wild animals. Nature 512:127.  http://www.nature.com/news/regulate-gene-editing-in-wild-animals-1.17523

PBS NewsHour 16 May 2015.  http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/can-quick-dying-genetically-modified-mosquitos-save-florida-keys-disease/





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