A breakthrough in genetic technology has given humans more power than ever to change nature. It could help eliminate hunger and disease; it could also lead to the sort of dystopia we used to only read about in sci-fi novels. So what happens next?
This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
If you'd like to listen to free economic radio without ads the place to do that is sticker premium, five dollars a month and you can get a free month trial by going to stick your premium dot com and use a promo code freak. You also get access. all our bonus, episodes and you'll be supporting our show too, but sticker premium dot com, promo code, freak thanks, I remember standing. I kitchen cooking dinner for my son and I just as only just burst out laughing. You know it's just those suddenly. This joyful thought of Is there a crazy that nature has come up with this incredible little machine history of science is full of accidental discoveries, penicillin, perhaps most famously, but also gunpowder and nuclear fission. It makes them Doesn't it because you don't know what you don't know you don't always
what you're looking for or at sometimes you just gotta curious mine. So the research project that led to this technology it was really. You know it was a curiosity driven project. Jennifer Downer is a professor of chemistry and biology at the University of California. Berkeley and I've had a long time interest in understanding. the mental biology, in particular aspects of a genetic control or in the way that evolution has come up with creative ways to regulate the experts of information in cells. When you first heard literally heard the phrase crisper just described that
and what your understanding of it was and what you kind of initially envisioned it facilitating. Well. When I first heard the acronym crisper, this was from a conversation with Jill Danfield. I had no idea tat was this was in two thousand six Danfield also Berkeley scientists have been studying, bacteria that grow in touch environment, so she was looking at bugs that grow in old, mind, shafts, and you know these pools of water that build up I'm in old mines that are often very acidic, or they have various kinds of metallic contaminants to figure out what bugs are growing. There are and how are they surviving? The key to their survival was called crisper clustered regularly. Interspaces short Palin, dramatic repeats say that five times Ass Danfield thought the bacteria had developed a sort of pattern based immune system to protect themselves, but exactly how it worked was a puzzle
help solve it. She recruited down and we ended up spending several afternoons where Jill was showing me her dna sequencing data from bacteria and in explaining what these sequences were. What began as a casual conversation about an obscure subject, grew to consume down now, four years. Finally, she had a breakthrough as only burst out laughing today on for economics, radio, the mine blowing discovery, that's already changing medicine and more a remarkable, Jean editing tool called crisper. That's right, I said Jean editing the implications of that boundless change I'm telling you the story, I feel is chill in my body and if you think the genetic revenue still years away. You should think again the technology for that is here now
I'm here from W and Y see studios. This is free economics, radio, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here's your home Stephen dogma congratulations on your future Nobel Prize Jennifer, Dowd, hasn't won the Nobel Prize yet, but it's hard to imagine, she won't go back and she started working with Jill Ban Field Odin learned the crisper were dna sequences stored in the cells of bacteria. You can think about it, like a genetic vaccination card, its away that sells store
information in the form of dna, from viruses to use in the future to protect cells. If that virus should show up again in the cell. But how does it work and what might mean if scientists could figured out in two thousand eleven having already stuff? crisper for a few years doubt not attended Microbiology Conference in Puerto Rico. There she met a manual carpentier than a researcher at who MEL University in Sweden. Carpentier was reached reaching a mystery protein that she felt was the key to crisper. Gee endowed now began a long running collaboration. We were working together, or to understand the molecular basis. their words. What are the molecules that allow bacteria to find and destroy? viral dna. That was the question that we set out to address and in the course of that research and in the course of that research, we figured out that a particular protein
it has a name CAS. Nine is programmable by the cell, a protein that can be programmed to fight viruses. You can start See where this is going, the amazing thing that this cast nine protein does is it works like a pair of scissors, it literally grabs onto the dna and cuts it at that place at that precise place, be thought if nature could programme. This casts nine protein to precisely edit dna. Why couldn't they? It turns out that when this is transplanted into animal or plant cells or human cells, it's possible. To introduce changes to the dna very precisely and that's how the technology fundamentally works then came the might at home cooking dinner for her son when she burst out and joyful laughter at the sheer wonder and the massive possum.
This is crazy that nature has come up with this incredible little machine, so so there was that sort of moment and then- and I think that sort of morphed into a growing recognition that you know this technology was going to be very impact, fall in many different areas of science, Donna, together with sharp pontio in several other colleagues, rode up their research and on June eighth, two thousand twelve formally submitted it to the journal science, whose public twenty days later, suddenly the world knew that the crisper cast nine system could be harnessed, new, Jean editing tool, What kind of genetic engineering
Revolutionizing scientific research scientists think Crisper could launch a new era in biology and medicine. Crisper could help rid us of diseases like cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and even HIV and Cancer Jennifer Doubt Anna had spent her career, largely cloistered, in laboratories. She didn't have a high profile background? I grew up in a small town in Hawaii. Suddenly she was a scientific superhero. We explore those questions with Jennifer down and get up and down an agenda for doubt Jennifer Dogma for harnessing in ancient bacterial immune system as a powerful, Jean Editing technology breakthrough prize awarded. A manual shall plantier and Jennifer. Doubt dogmas spent the past few years reaching forward, while also trying to slow things down she wrestles with all this. In a book she CO wrote with another crisper researcher. Samuel Sternberg
It's called a crack in creation. Why the title it refers to what well at its core is the crisper Jean editing technology is is now giving human beings the opportunity to change the course of evolution, and you know, human beings have been affecting evolution for a long time right, but I now, there's a technology that allows a very specific changes to be made to dna. That gives us new level of of control, and so you know it serve opening a crack and I sort of sea. It is like an analogous to opening a door to the future That is really you know a change in the way that we think about our world as opposed to like a crack in
the dimension that we will fall through and all disappear, and not that kind of crack. We hope the former, not the latter. So as you right in the book, we uncovered the workings of an increase bore molecular machine that could slice apart viral dna with exquisite precision, so when you call it an incredible molecular machine, your breakthrough of you and your colleagues is essentially an external human guided replica of what already exists, or are you kind of taking over the controls of what inherently exists? This is important, we're really taking over the controls of what already exists. and we're doing it by using this bacterial system. The cast nine protein to find an me a cut in DNA in LE, say human cells at a particular place where the cells now,
repair machinery can then take over and do the actual editing. What's amazing to me is the now true repair. Machinery obviously exists, and maybe it works really well a lot of the time it just in the most drastic circumstances like a cancer or a debilitating diseases. I mean the healing mechanism from reading what you have written. It sounds as oats quite stochastic. It's random unpredictable, some things that catches something's it doesn't. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesnt. So can you talk about? The big pick of this repair mechanism in and how well or poorly it does show our so DNA repair happens all the time in cells and, as you alluded to it, has to work right mostly. time or we would probably not be here or we would all have a lot more cancer than we have in so we know that that sells, experienced double strand breaks to their dna were routinely and that they have ways of fixing those breaks, and so I would say that what this crisper technique
She does it really taps into that natural repair pathway Since the announcement of the crisper cast nine technology, scientists around the world have been exploring its possibilities in many different arenas, let's start with plants, I think it's important for people to appreciate that you know for certain that humans have modifying plants furled on time, genetically and goodness literally thousands of years exactly thank goodness rating in Europe, as well. I'm glad there's, I'm glad, there's plant reading, but the other way that that's me, done traditionally is to use chemicals our even radiation, to introduce a genetic changes into seeds, and then plant readers will select furs for plants that have traits that they want and, of course, agent. When you do something like that, you drag along a lot of traits that you probably don't want, and you know chain
to the dna that you you don't even control for it right, so you don't even know where they are or what they might be doing, and so I think the opportunity here Jeanne, editing and plants is to be able to make changes precisely so not to drag along traits that you don't want. To be able to make changes that will be beneficial to plant sir, but to do that very precisely in Then we have the opportunity to do things like you know, give plants the ability to grow with much less water or to defend themselves against various kinds of infections and ill pests. removing in due to climate change. I think, from the perspective of the world food supply, that's going to be really important going forward and will potentially allow us to have access to plants that are going to be much better adapted for particular environments and to grow we without a chemical interventions of different types, no good how nervous some portion of the population is about the phrase genetically model?
I'd organisms, even though, as you pointed out, almost The organism on earth has been genetically modified, for you know hundreds, if not thousands of years, this feels like a next level step that will raise all kinds of questions even in the plant world forget about humans or animals. Yet of you, know, governance and autonomy and so on. What are your thoughts in me in the plant flesh agricultural world. I think that you know it's really gonna come down to people having access to information about. Where is our food? Coming from so that people in different countries can evaluate these plants in the technologies used to create them, and- their own decisions about what they want to do and having a precision tool that allows us to generate plants that are better, let's say adapted to partition. environments are middle, maybe have even better nutritional value, and I
I really believe that going forward that we can't afford to reject this. We really have to understand it. regulated appropriately, but we do have to. I think we have to have this tool in our toolbox. Crisper Jean editing is also being put to use on animals scientists. In short, are engaged in controversial research, genetically modified beagles to be more muscular piecemeal details have been genetically modified to plead with and eliminate the species in an urgent attempt to wipe out carriers of dengue fever. Researchers believe that they can recreate up. Will we mammoth by combining dna with that of a modern elephant theirs least one and made more than one company now that are using the gene editing technology and animals like pigs to create pigs that could be better organ donors for humans, I'd like the Micro pig to chinese genome the institute BT, I began breeding micro pigs to study diseases, but now
oh they're, going to sell them as patents for sixteen hundred dollars and give until the micro pay graze. Miley Cyrus, as one yes, Patsy right, the idea of you no sort of offence all use in a way of gene, editing, innovate, making our animals that we think are cute. The animal with the largest implications, of course, is the human coming up on economics: radio, how long until central employers or mates are scouring our genetic profiles to see. If we're worthy, I mean if you knew that you're potential made was high likelihood, of developing early dementia, you might think twice before getting married and what keeps Jennifer down up at night, and I realized with this horror, I realise that it was Adolf Hitler
the gene editing revolution, prompted by the work of scientists like Jennifer Donna, isn't the We Jean related Revolution, these days they dont, let Stephen Dublin has going high steamer hurry. There's also social genomics with Social, Germans. Revolutions really just getting started, I would say, don't calmly, teaches sociology and population studies at Princeton and I'm the co author of the genome Baxter? You may remember calmly, from an old for economics, radio episode called how much does your name matter. He has two kids, a daughter and Kay you, like the latter Anderson, I'm yo like the slaying, but those are just their first names, full names, harbouring Nora Jeremy Genco calmly. Oh shit: hey no Augustus, Eisner, Alexander, wiser knuckles. Irma, Jack O Connell laser YO, ok where's, your first name yo comes from where,
because the Y chromosome so Dalton calmly, the sociologist, dad he's, always had a crafty way of thinking about genetic, identity, so Dalton. The subtitle of your book is what the Social genomics revolution reveals about ourselves, our history in the future. Just begin by telling you What do you mean by the Social genomics revolution? What's revolutionary about it and describe kind of the Ark. revolution and where we are in that ok. Well, social, Germans, revolutions really just getting started, I would say: win Bill Clinton stood up in the EU, two thousand and announced at the book of life had been decoded. We're here, to celebrate the complete, the first survey of the entire human genome. Without a doubt, this is the most important most wondrous map ever produced by human everyone thought everything was ashamed. Suddenly we're gonna have personalized medicine, we were gonna, I don't know what
revolutionized the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all human diseases, but actually not much happened for the first decade or so the great scientific hope was defined single, easily identifiable genes that controlled cancer or depression or intelligence or even just height, so that turned out be an exception rather than the rule. Its Jason Fletcher he's an economist at the University of Wisconsin and Madison and he's colonies, author on the genome factor, most of what we care about most of life's important outcomes are not one gene in one disease there more, like hundreds or thousands of it's always really tiny effects. If you can even find them having a map of the genome was one thing, but in the bill Clinton era there was a lack of good data. that has changed, and now we have this, what I The revolution is this: surfeit of cheap data. Cheap genetic data just to decade the go? It costs a billion dollars to sequence, a single genome and now
but you and I could spit in a cup and send it to one of the popular sequencing outfits. four hundred dollars or four hundred fifty dollars. We can get millions of answers, the question. What is our dna? Look like anyone who sends there's saliva into twenty three and me we're just a small saliva sample you'll, learn about your ancestry through your twenty three pairs of chromosomes and make you who you are yet their ancestry, their suppose it health risks has now basically agreed to be part of that, the database that will be studied in this as well over a million samples of mostly U S, citizens and all that data is being together in both genetic analysis and social science analysis to try to understand the vast array of comes were all interested in that's anything for Alzheimer's and dimension on the hillside. Two measures educational attainment and socio economic position on the social science side, so we finally have big data sets with lots of generic mark
across the entire set of chromosomes and were now actually making robust discoveries that are withstanding replication and seem pretty solid and I think that's the start of the revolution, but warning it still early days. That's right. So humans are very complicated and the amount of data we're talking about as in the millions or the millions of locations on our genome. So what does this mean for attack? knowledge, Lake crisper, Jean editing, I think that's gonna, be exciting force a limited number of single Jean diseases, diseases like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease and Huntington's disease, but most things we care about in today's world heart disease. Alzheimer's I q height body, mass index, diet, these risk. All of those things are highly Polly genetic. That means that there is. Total of many little affects all across the chromosomes and
That is probably means we're not going to be doing Jean editing and in a thousand different locations in the genome. Who is now any time soon, but with all the economic data that are being accumulated, scientists have been devising a system to make sense, We have a tool that emerge. Call the polish ethnic score to take all the small effects. Eyes your finding across many many many genes- and you add them all up and then you ve created a sum, The scale of your predicted likelihood of doing acts were extremely smoking or getting dementia we're going to college, but those scores aren't predicting very well right now, so before or anything drastic happened. Socially. I would think that those scores were needed. lot better it Wednesday is really start explaining a lot of the variation in society Then? I would start worrying worrying, because why the use by external authorities and the needs of this information. That's definitely scary and I think the other
dimension is going to being in the marriage market, where people just take it upon them, I too want to no genetic information about their potential mates. I mean if you knew that your potential made was high likelihood, of developing early dementia. You might think twice before getting married, I mean you know phenotypes or for hookups, but China type is forever so the technology for that is here now it could be using infertility, clinics, it could be used. dating apps, where people could put their genetic profile linked from twenty. Three me to Okcupid selection, of course, is something we all do. Every
Are we choose our friends and allies and enemy is our political leaders? Some traits are observable, others less, so some are heritable others not if the selection potential afforded by these new technologies is frightening to you keep in mind the thing that's knew about this is the technology. Remember the eugenics movement that was certified by a preference for a preference for people of certain european ancestry and not all european ancestry, but certain just a favoured groups to have more children and to be given resources the exclusion of all other people. Then, of course it led pretty directly to nazi fascism and the extermination of millions of people and also was used as the pseudo science behind at least decades of racial injustice in the
the states and many other countries. That is the nightmare that has given Jennifer Downer actual nightmares. that really was one of the defining moment for me in terms of thinking about getting involved in the ethical conversation. So I dream in which I was working away, I think I was in my office actually and a colleague of mine. And came in and said I'd like to introduce you to someone. and I d like you to explain the crisper technology to him and he led me: to a room, and there was a light in the room, and there was someone sitting incentive silhouette in a chair with his back to me, and he turned around, and I realized with this horror, and I can feel it right now. I'm telling you the story, I feel is chill, a body that that I realise that it was Adolf Hitler and he
looking at me with very, very intent, look on his face and in eager kind of look, you know, and he wanted to know about this technology, and I felt this incredible sense of fear, both sort of personal fear, but also a profound kind of exit and so I fear that you know if someone like that were to get a hold of a powerful technology like this, how would they deploy it? course. It you know when I woke up from that dream and out. You know, thinking about it subsequently, and it was really scary to think of And I thought you know this? We have to proceed responsibly here. We cannot just your eye For me, myself, I can't just carry on with my next experiment in my lab. I really have to get involved in in a broader discussion about this. It's just too important subject.
I hear I don't mean to at all diminish year your argument, but I hear a lot of scientists make a similar agreement which, as you know, look what we're doing our best on our end, and we really want to have this conversation kind of in public, especially with people who have the leverage, mostly politicians. Let's say to make smart choices. My question is: does good mechanism or forum for that kind of conversation really exist. Well, I think we're kind of building. It has we're going if, at some level, I ve been involved in organizing a number of meetings other there right now there are fairly small in focus, but the idea is to really answer. We hope that question that you just pose is how do you do that? How do you bring people from these different walks of life together? So they can have a meaningful discussion and I don't have the answer yet, but I do think that it has to involve formats that are accessible to people at camp
be a bunch of academics. You know me talking in the silo to each other right exactly. It cannot be that it has to be using various ways I think the media are going to be very important. I think people that right science fiction are going to be important. I think that move makers are going to be important musicians, and various kinds of visual artists are going to be important. You think all of those people are very skilful at communication, communicating ideas and they can do it in some ways much more effectively than you know. A lot of technical jargon, whatever achieved so probably the most enticing, and certainly the most controversial aspect of crisper- is the power to reshape human, beings, whether an individual with an illness or a generation of a family or maybe an entire population. So obviously it's a gigantic area. Then something that Probably nobody doesn't bring a lot of strong prior to the table with already, but can you just
about this issue and you're. Thinking about the issue and kind of where you ve landed, I've seen it listen to my own thinking quite frankly, and I think that I sort of have gone from feeling very uncomfortable with you know, the idea of making changes to human embryos, especially for anything that would be considered. You know not medically essential to to thinking that in oh, there may come a time I dont think we're there now and it's. I don't think it's right around the corner, but I think there may come a time when that sort of application is embraced and and is going to be deployed and- and I think that for me the important thing is not to reject it. Its act lay to understand it and and really think through the implications, not lemnius him just to take a step back and talk about. actual therapeutic. I guess treatment and the difference
between germ line and semantic editing. Ah, yes, this is very important to understand the difference so most of the applications that we ve been. Talking about, especially in medicine. Right now involve what we call somatic cell editing and that means making changes to the dna in cells of a particular tissue in a person that's already fully developed, but those changes do not become heritable. They can't be passed on to the next generation, but the contrast that is changes to the germ line, and that means making changes to the dna of embryos or eggs or sperm changes that inherited by future generations and become effectively permanent in the human genome, and so I think, there's a profound difference between those two use. Because if you are doing something that affects one person, you know it has to be regulated of course, You have to make sure that its safe and effective, but it affects just that one person, whereas if you make a change that affects
but he's all of their children of their children's children, etc. That is really profound and it really does affect ultimately human evolution and pray Emily. Let's say I cared enough about some strain of Herod ability enough to do. It would say, on a fairly wide scale, then, presumably it would increase my incentive to may be diminished Supply of now undermined treated people re, so you you could imagine it. Gotta territory are well. I mean it doesn't take long, even fair minded, as you know, a kind of flabby his mind to get together their pretty quickly right. I mean the patent so, for this reminds me a bit of the potential for GEO Engineering. You know intentionally altering the planet's atmosphere to change a temperature increase. Global warming gets really destructive. So one of the key questions there is, you know, governance who gets to control the thermostat, and I know you ve been very outspoken in that you really flung herself into the
ethical and practical elements of this technology, but I'm various where you stand on the kind of biggest was the scariest cause. I hate windward knee jerk scared of new technologies at her premier face a wonderful, But I do wonder you're thinking on that. Well, I think it's very important to you kind of alluded to this, but I think it's very important to emphasise that you know this technology I think is going to overall, is going to have a very positive benefit to human beings in many ways, and I'd really like to make sure that people get that message, because it, I think it's either, He, too, you know, try to make things sound exciting by making a sound, really scary should end, and I think this is a technology that
Billy were already seeing incredibly exciting advances. You know operating at ease to cure genetic diseases that have had no treatments in the past to advance the pace of clinical and other types of research. They make it possible to understand the genetic basis for disease and then be able to do something about it. When you have that information, so I think what needs to happen is that scientists need to run we engage with government regulators and, frankly, also with religious leaders and other kinds of thought leaders to make sure, first and foremost, that there is a very clear understanding of the science behind this much as possible. Let's pretend that this technology within a couple generations works so beautifully that it extends lifespan by twenty percent or fifty percent or two hundred percent. Do you think about what happens in terms of obvious things like global resources of people are living twice as long, but also
how we as animals would respond to that scenario in which scarcity diminishes so much of the scarcity being a short lifespan. It seems that humans are relatively slow to adapt to the the diminishment of scarcity over time like it seems we still eat, for instance, in the twenty four country as though the next meal may or may not appear on the horizon. Some curious. If The sudden there are all these extra years in terms of everything, labour markets and retirement and the essential issues like what do I do now for those next eighty four hundred years that Dino Jennifer, Dana and her colleagues helped facilitate. Do you think about those things. Well, there's lots of interest in that task to create now, as you know, especially here in Silicon Valley, I think for me
it really would come down to are those extra years high quality years and are they years where people could be contributing. Importantly to society, and if the answer is yes, then I think that is something that is is the interesting to think about. If the answer is no than I dont think. I certainly don't think that sound very appealing at all, but I'd rather take short and healthy than the long and miserable, but I think that the prospect of enhancing human health, if that goes hand in hand with a jetty, I certainly would like to see it beasts. Thing that was available to communities around the world, not just to a few people as well uncertainty as there is around the future of crisper cast nine and the genetic revolution generally. You probably won't be surprised
and there's also uncertainty about where the proceeds from these discoveries will flow. As you can imagine, they are potentially huge Jennifer doubt and his team filed patent rights early. And use the crisper system on virtually any living thing, but not long after a researcher, Fun, gene from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard filed crisper patents on an important subset of living things. The conflict went to the federal patent trial and appeal board, which ruled and junk favour. The final outcome is far from settled. A few updates, since we first release this episode last The research journal nature methods published a paper suggesting that crisper wasn't as precise as people are gonna say it is. The author is claimed, cause two thousand unexpected mutations, but that paper
was recently retracted. In other news, the USDA recently approved a broad range of gene ended foods, crisper even featured as a major pop. we in the Dwayne, the Rock Johnson movie rampage and on the intellectual property front, doubtless team at you see Berkeley is appealing the patent offices decision. The European Patent Office meanwhile revoked the broad institutes, crisper patent they're coming up next time. Fr economics, radio. We all love to read about the latest breakthrough in psychology research, don't we, but the danger, I think, is quite right, which is that we can very the push our wonder buttons and push your interests buttons using pseudoscience, rather science. What if I told you that
while the terms that psychologists use, are all different kinds of wrong. Yes, inaccurate or misleading, frequently misused ambiguous terms, oxymorons and pleonasm, for instance, so one that comes to mind his by stander apathy. The biggest error is to assume that his personality traits are you military they only have one cause and that their inherited one of the most important discoveries in neuroscience of the last few years has been that all that hardwired stuff is completely wrong. So what are psychologist good for anyway? It's not a big question, actually misused and abused concepts from psychology psychiatry its next time and for economics, radio,
forget about three zero is produced by W and my c studios and W productions. This episode was produced by Gregg results. Key our staff also includes Alison Hockenberry, Merit Jacob Stephanie time MAX Miller, Harry Huggins and Andy Mice, and I'm u can subscribe to reconnect radio on Apple, Pont casts or sticker reverie getting guess also at free economics. Dot com, you can find our entire archive you can stream or download every episode we ve ever made. You can read the transcripts, you can find Thanks to the underlying research, we can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, or by now at radio at for economics that come thanks for listening,
Transcript generated on 2021-01-21.