It is rare that prominent members of the scientific community come together to warn our leaders of technological breakthroughs that our legal system and society are not prepared for. As the last scientist with a Ph.D. remaining in Congress, I feel a responsibility to transmit those concerns to my colleagues and to the public.
The breakthrough in question relates to human genetic engineering. This has long been a theoretical possibility assumed to be decades away from practicality. In the last several years this has changed significantly due to recent breakthroughs that allow inexpensive and precise editing of chromosomal DNA. The technological potential has been amplified by the widespread adoption of in vitro fertilization, the rapid decline in the cost of genome sequencing, increasing use of Big Data to understand the relationship between genetic variations and behavior and the rapid spread of these technologies throughout the world.
It’s time for leaders in government to take notice.
The ability to modify DNA has been around for decades, but until recently it was expensive and time consuming, and required a very high level of technical skill. That has changed significantly in the last few years with the development of new gene editing tools such as CRISPR/Cas9, introduced by Jennifer Doudna and others. These tools have been rapidly adopted by researchers around the world.
This is a critical point in the future of humankind, much like the advent of nuclear power. That was a development that fundamentally altered global politics and created such a lasting impact that it won’t only be remembered by historians but will forever be traceable in our geological history. Similarly, the first human life created from a genetically modified embryo will be a development that will alter the global political landscape and will forever be traceable in the human genetic record.
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