A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg
For a few decades now, the prospect of genetic engineering has, at the same time, offered the promise of great advances and the fear of unforeseen consequences. These fears have been reflected in both literature and film.
The 1982 movie Star Trek II presented the genetically-engineered superman Khan (created in the 1960s original series with the warning that “superior ability breeds superior ambition”). No one liked the thought of a genetically-superior Alexander the Great being released upon the world.
The 1997 film Gattaca showed this from the opposite perspective, a non-engineered man trying to live and thrive in a world where everyone else had been genetically enhanced. It was a cautionary tale of the dangers of a genetically stratified society, with the unthinkable consequence of a new caste system.
The subject of this book, genetic engineering, or the new term ‘gene editing,’ is perhaps the greatest power in our time and certainly a subject that few outside of the field of biology know very much about. Despite the ignorance of most of the public in these matters, the science continues to advance and to surmount barriers once thought to be impossible. A quote from the prologue of this book speaks to the enormous potential of this technology:
And with the newest and arguable most effective genetic engineering tool…, the genome—an organism’s entire DNA content, including its genes—has become almost as editable as a simple piece of text.” (p. xiii)
Amazing but also ominous.
Dr. Jennifer Doudna has written this book for the very purpose of explaining the science and to caution about its potential misuse.
Dr. Doudna is at the forefront of the gene editing field, having received the 2020 Nobel Prize for her discovery of the techniques by which the CRISPR gene editing technology could be used to accurately cut a selected portion of DNA and incorporate new code into the gap, thus editing the genetic code.
This book, written with her collaborator and fellow researcher Dr. Sanuel H. Sternberg, intends to inform the general reader about what the new technology is, what great potential it has, but also the potential dangers it could pose.
After relating a history of genetic alteration technology, Dr. Doudna chronicles the development of CRISPR technology and the discovery of how it could be used to edit any part of the genome of any organism, even that of human beings.
The great advantage of this technology is not only its accuracy but also its ease of use and low cost. In other words, it makes genetic engineering far more user friendly, for better or for worse.
Almost Unlimited Potential
Without a doubt, this technology offers tremendous potential for human health and the alleviation of suffering from rare genetic diseases. Dr. Doudna gives several examples of serious diseases (such as sickle cell anemia) that result from small congenital errors in the genetic code, errors that gene editing technology offers the opportunity to correct.
It is with little doubt that Dr. Doudna and most of the people working in the field of genetic alteration have the highest of ideals and the desire to see the technology improve the condition of human beings.
The application of this technology is very broad and also goes to the animal world where gene editing could cause more robust cows or pigs, increasing the production of food meats with no loss of nutritional value.
Another extension of the technology is the use of gene editing in plants. The code of food plants can be altered to make them less susceptible to disease and blight or even to increase yield.
This seemingly unlimited potential is however balanced by great concerns that arise from the very nature of genetic alteration itself.
The Danger of Permanent Changes
There are two basic ways in which gene editing is applied to organisms. Dr. Doudna explains the difference between somatic cell gene editing and that of germline cell editing. Somatic cells are cells of the body. The editing of the genes of those cells affects only the person in whose body the genes are edited.
However, it is with germline cell gene editing that the greatest danger lies. Germ cells are those that pass on their genetic information to the next generation. Human egg and sperm cells are examples. Changes in germline genetic code would pass on to successive generations and would permanently change the organism.
It is this kind of gene editing that gave Dr. Doudna her greatest concerns, even causing her nightmares and fears that she would become a “Dr. Frankenstein.”
Shortly after her breakthrough with CRISPR technology, Dr. Doudna worked to start discussions among the scientific community and the public at large to consider whether germline cell edited should be prohibited or, if it was allowed, what restrictions should be placed upon it.
Even as she was doing this, others were making moves to use the technology for purposes other than the healing of congenital diseases. Some of these involved proposals to alter the code of unborn children to make them less susceptible to disease. There also concerns that others would use the technology to try for human enhancement, to create a better breed of human being.
The canary was indeed out of the cage.
The Value of This Book
The book is written in very accessible prose for the informed general reader. The obviously very complicated scientific processes are explained in a way that is easily understandable (something for which Dr. Doudna gives great credit to her editor).
Even though the principle writing seems to have been done by Dr. Sternberg (from the acknowledgments), the account is told from Dr. Doudna’s perspective. However, she never fails to emphasize how the discovery and advancement of gene editing technology has, and continues to be, a team effort, with team members from all across the globe.
To Dr. Doudna’s credit, she sees not only the great potential of gene editing but also the possible abuses. Her book was written to inform the public and to hopefully spur dialog about setting parameters under which a civilized society can allow the technology to proceed while also reigning in the possible abuses.
She acknowledges that due to the rapidly with which the technology is advancing, time may be running out on reaching a consensus on how to limit the science.
She is not naïve. She compares this technology to the development of the atomic bomb. Once the canary is out of the cage then it is impossible to put back in. What she hopes is to inform the public so that a proper societal decision can be made about a moral way forward.
The name of the book, ‘A Crack in Creation,’ reflects the desire for a catchy, alliterative title to capture the imagination. There is nothing about biblical creation in this book nor even anything that can remotely be considered theistic. The only thing in the book that is transcendent is “evolution” and “nature.” Written from the pure naturalism of modern science, the book sees nothing in human development but chance variation and an unguided process.
The same can be said for the moral principles discussed. While Dr. Doudna displays compassion for those sick and a concern about the potential misuse of her work, these concerns do not arise from the moral teachings of Scripture (or frankly any other human religion) but from a broad humanism. We can applaud her for her ethics and compassion while being concerned that this enormously powerful technology is separated from any God-ordered morality.
I highly recommend the book. It is informative and accessible.
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