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February 19, 2019

A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna, Samuel H. Sternberg

Book Review by Heather Kuruvilla, February 19, 2019

Are you interested in medicine?  Ethics?  Stewardship of creation?  You should read this book.

CRISPR-Cas9 technology has changed gene editing from being an expensive, difficult proposition to something so simple that biohackers can do it in their garage with kits available on Amazon.  A Crack in Creation tells the story of the discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 technology and deals with the questions arising from its widespread popularity and almost unimagined accessibility.  Authors Doudna and her colleague, Sternberg, tell their story through the eyes of Doudna, whose lab had a pivotal role in the characterization of the CRISPR bacterial immune system.  While their purpose is to share CRISPRs story and ramifications with the lay public, having some biology background will definitely benefit the reader.

The early chapters of A Crack in Creation rehearse the history, science, and collaborations involved in discovering and harnessing CRISPR-Cas9 technology, while the later chapters discuss developing applications of CRISPR.  CRISPR has allowed scientists to design new disease models in animals, more nutritious and pest-resistant crops, and has even allowed progress toward the “de-extinction” of animals.  The technology also shows promise for helping to control invasive species.  Since many of these developments have environmental implications, environmental scientists should clearly be involved in the discussion of how we should responsibly steward CRISPR.  How can we protect the environment from major disruptions as a result of releasing edited species into the wild?  When is it safe to release them?  Should we act preemptively to prevent gene editing from being used for purposes such as bioterrorism or ecoterrorism?

In addition to the progress being made in plant and animal studies, CRISPR has been used to edit both viable and nonviable human embryos.  In October of 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiunkui announced the birth of CRISPR-edited twin girls who, as a result of gene editing, were resistant to HIV infection.  This development ignited a firestorm of controversy surrounding the appropriate use of CRISPR in humans.  While the primary concern of most scientists at this point is the safety of the technology, the controversy surrounding gene editing ultimately has roots in the question of what it means to be human.  What is the line between “fixing what is broken” in the genome and “genetic enhancement”?  How do we decide what falls within the realm of medicine, whose role is restoring homeostasis, as opposed to the realm of eugenics?  What are morally acceptable uses of CRISPR-Cas9 technology in terms of editing the human genome?  At what point is germ-line editing acceptable?

Given the pace at which this technology is being perfected, its low cost, and its widespread availability, the authors make a good case for including ethicists, environmental scientists, and the public in a discussion that until now, has been dominated by biochemists and molecular biologists.  CRISPR-Cas9 has changed the world in which we now live.  It is up to us to be informed, so that we can contribute knowledgeably not only to science, but to society.

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