A new book on CRISPR, gene editing, and their ethical implications

Word on the street is that the book shown below, by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg, is very good (it’s out on June 13; click on screenshot to go to Amazon link). You may have heard of Berkeley professor Jennifer Doudna, one of the pioneers in using the new CRISPR technique to genetically edit cells—”genome editing”; co-author Samuel Sternberg studied with Doudna as a postdoc and now works for a biotechnology company.

And I hope you’ve heard of CRISPR (“clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”), which is a method of genome editing that grew out of pure science: the discovery that bacteria have immune systems in which they incorporate into their own DNA short bits of DNA from invading viruses, and then use those bits, along with an enzyme called Cas9, to cut up and destroy the genomes of those viruses when they invade again. This is analogous to our own immune system, which has a memory that can inactivate harmful proteins the body has experienced before. (This is the basis of vaccination.) That pure science grew, through the work and ingenuity of many scientists, into a method that now enables us to cut DNA at any given sequence in nearly any species (including our own), and then insert new DNA of our own making, or DNA taken from other cells. We could cure sickle-cell anemia by editing into sufferers the “normal” hemoglobin gene, and do likewise with many other genetic diseases. We could get rid of the AIDS virus that hides in the human genome. We could genetically engineer crops to make them resistant to insects and herbicides. We can study gene function by selectively inactivating genes or visualizing their expression using proteins that fluoresce. We already have some ability to do these things, but the CRISPR-Cas9 system makes this dead easy.

But there’s also the possibility of editing not just the genes in bodies, but the genes in sperm and eggs, giving rise to the possibility of genetically changing our own and other species, permanently—or directing our own evolution. (It’s not just humans, either; we could alter disease-carrying insects to render them harmless.) The possibility of germline editing carries with it severe ethical problems: how much can we and should we change our own genetic legacy? Both the methodology and ethics are discussed in Doudna and Sternberg’s book, as this Amazon summary shows:

A trailblazing biologist grapples with her role in the biggest scientific discovery of our era: a cheap, easy way of rewriting genetic code, with nearly limitless promise and peril.

Not since the atomic bomb has a technology so alarmed its inventors that they warned the world about its use. Not, that is, until the spring of 2015, when biologist Jennifer Doudna called for a worldwide moratorium on the use of the new gene-editing tool CRISPR—a revolutionary new technology that she helped create—to make heritable changes in human embryos. The cheapest, simplest, most effective way of manipulating DNA ever known, CRISPR may well give us the cure to HIV, genetic diseases, and some cancers, and will help address the world’s hunger crisis. Yet even the tiniest changes to DNA could have myriad, unforeseeable consequences—to say nothing of the ethical and societal repercussions of intentionally mutating embryos to create “better” humans.

Writing with fellow researcher Samuel Sternberg, Doudna shares the thrilling story of her discovery, and passionately argues that enormous responsibility comes with the ability to rewrite the code of life. With CRISPR, she shows, we have effectively taken control of evolution. What will we do with this unfathomable power?

(There’s some nastiness in the field about who gets priority for this discovery, as it’s sure to garner a Nobel Prize (getting CRISPR to this point is the work of dozens of people, but certain scientists—not Doudna or Sternberg—are trying to establish hegemony. There’s also a big patent battle over the use of the system, but I won’t get into that. Go here if you want to read the dirty details.)
Now you could read about the CRISPR-Cas9 system on Wikipedia, or you could read a good but technical paper by Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier (another pioneer in this area) published in Science (free at the link).  But if you have any interest in science, or in bioethics, I’d strongly urge you to learn about the new methods of gene editing, how they work, what they can do, and their ethical implications. You might order the book above, and I’d also direct you to two explanations by our own Matthew Cobb.

The first is a BBC show he did about gene editing, (“Editing life”), whose description and link I’ve given before.

And now Matthew’s just published a short primer on the issue called “The brave new world of CRISPR”, which appeared in the new Biological Sciences Review. That piece will bring every reader up to speed. Sadly, it’s not online free, but if you email me I’ll send you a pdf.

The CRISPR system is the most important innovation in biotechnology since the advent of DNA sequencing methods; its development is a fascinating story and its ethical implications are profound. You need to learn about it if you have any interest in science. I’ve given you at least five resources to do so.

Here are Doudna and Sternberg:



  1. Historian
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    From the post, it seems that this discovery may rank as one of the most significant in human history. I also get the sense that any trained geneticist can easily use CRISPR to in essence create new species or significantly modify existing ones. Are there any governmental bodies competent enough to control its use? I doubt it. This means we may be heading towards a Brave New World where many Dr. Frankensteins could be creating their own monsters of choice. The general public in the U.S. and around the world probably do not have an inkling that this technology exists. For so many reasons, including CRISPR, people who are children today will face in their adulthood a world significantly different from that existing now. Perhaps I should be glad that I will not see it

    • Posted May 7, 2017 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      I’m sure we don’t want our current president and his minions making decisions on this. They are already candidates for surgery.

  2. Posted May 7, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    I have been hearing and reading a lot about CRISPR-CAS9. I suspect that its use will depend among other things on who uses it and that raises the question of who controls it, which may be the same as who owns the patent. Unfortunately, that is already the subject of litigation, but it seems to be between here and here.) It really seems bizarre to me that universities should be battling over patent rights to a scientific discovery.

    • Posted May 7, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      Oops. It seems to be between various universities and their institutes. Sorry ’bout that.

  3. Randy schenck
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Can certainly see that the politics and legal types are going to be a long time catching up with this. Like all great discoveries there will be the good and the bad in all of this. Hoping we can get mostly good.

  4. Michael Fisher
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    I think it is technically less challenging to use CRISPR for evil rather than for good. One individual could produce something that targets a specific food crop [wheat, rice] directly or via an insect vector & it’s all over. The resultant famine would trigger all sorts of additional horrors.

    No thanks.

    • Wunold
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 1:12 am | Permalink

      I think it’s technically less challenging to use kitchen knifes for stabbing people than for feeding them. No thanks.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted May 8, 2017 at 2:32 am | Permalink

        @Wunold a pithy, but information-free post by you is not a surprise

        The downside of knives loose in the wild compared with the upside is a different equation to CRISPR & you know it. I [or you, or anyone] can buy a DIY Bacterial Gene Engineering CRISPR Kit online for $150. A lone nut with CRISPR/cas9 tools could turn out the lights on all of us.

        Those are the stakes

        Do you see what I did there? I posted something in reply with information to support my stance

        • Wunold
          Posted May 8, 2017 at 3:40 am | Permalink

          You make an highly speculative appeal to consequences and then you get personal if someone points that out in an ironic way.

          If you really want to support your stance, give us reliable data that supports it. It certainly is a valid question how dangerous DIY CRISPR kits are. I just reject your claim that you already know the answer.

          Now back to some irony at your discretion. According to Scotland Yard, The most common knife used in teenage stabbings in London is taken from the kitchen. So, I think my stance about them is not unsupported.

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted May 8, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

            I found your comment facile, not ironic & your bit about knife crime is also not ironic. Outside of Iain M. Banks a knife isn’t an existential threat – that’s why your comparison fails. But I’ve already explained that.

            Regarding your “Highly speculative appeal to consequences” – you’ve misapplied that fallacy. We know that there’s few ways [or none even] for a particular gene to be edited to work in a new, or improved way, that brings good & vastly more ways for it to ‘break’ entirely or function less effectively.

            CRISPR-Cas9 was first harnessed for genome editing around 40 months ago & now we have DIYbio home kits available to all. There is no need for me to demonstrate to you that these kits are a danger because they’re not particularly advanced, but a few 10s of thousands of home DIYbio tinkerers will appear when the price drops even further. It takes only one mistake by one kid doing his biohacking – or even why go on a shooting spree at your school when it would be so much cooler to give ’em all the pox?

            • Wunold
              Posted May 8, 2017 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

              If you don’t see the need to demonstrate your claim that mere 10s of thousands DIY bio hackers are more likely to endanger us than countless random mutations that occur every day in nature, I don’t see the need to take it seriously.

              All that’s left for us is to wait and see how precise your predictions were. In the meanwhile, we both could read the book discussed here, especially its ethics part.

              Now that this is settled, I wonder what your overall stance on CRISPR really is. Are you only against DIY kits or CRISPR as a whole, even in controlled conditions? Your initial posting isn’t explicit about that.

  5. Posted May 7, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I have been following this as time allows. Based on precedent, I am not personally inclined to see this as a huge danger, nor a huge huge transformation in beating our various scourges (cancer, insect disease vectors, and so on). There should be benefits, but it won’t be our greatest revolution. That has already happened in the form of computer technology.
    We have been through a similar revolution in technology, namely the advent of recombinant DNA and the ability to generate transgenic organisms. Remember all the hype, doom and gloom over that one? I sure do! And the predictions from that seem oddly similar to the predictions we hear about CRISPR Cas9. So my view is that it will evolve to be like that earlier biotech revolution. It will be big. It will benefit many, and because of regulation it will be limited.

    • Posted May 7, 2017 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      The issue is, Mark – what regulation? In the US you could CRISPR a human embryo, if you had the money. Nothing to stop you. There is no federal control on this. And there’s no regulation anywhere in the world for what Doudna and Sternberg accept is the most dangerous potential application, and which led CRISPR to be defined by the last administration as a WMD – CRISPR-based gene drives. These could sweep through natural populations of any organism, across national boundaries, with potentially disastrous consequences. I repeat – there is no regulatory framework in any country to deal with this, nor any prospect of one. These issues are dealt with in some detail in my radio programme and the article you can get from PCC(E). – MC

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted May 7, 2017 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

        Yes, even a commoner like me can see this as very dangerous in the absence of proper and educated regulation. Here in the wild west we could just follow the money and guess what happens. Just an example: We know the scientists at Monsanto have made the company very rich, beyond wildest dreams with round up to apply to round up ready corn and beans. What if they were using the technology to remove a few weeds from growing in the fields instead and where is the money in that?

      • Posted May 8, 2017 at 12:15 am | Permalink

        Are there no rules at all? Like for stem cells, for which there was much fuss some years back. I thought they were regulated.

        In France, there are recommendations, but I guess they are not law.

        • Posted May 8, 2017 at 3:31 am | Permalink

          The only US regulations relate to federal funding on stem cells – if you are rich, you can do what you want. Many European countries do have laws on embryo manipulation.

  6. Posted May 7, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Here’s an analogy I used with my students in discussing earlier recombinant DNA procedures. Claiming that we are in a position to “guide” our own future evolution is rather like teaching a child how to use a word processing program and then giving her the digital version of an poor and outdated text on nuclear physics. In principle, that child has the tools necessary to update and improve the text, but the likelihood that she actually makes improvements is vanishingly small. Until we know a lot more about about the enormously complex interactions among genes in controlling development, we are not much more likely to create superior human beings regardless of how easy it is to edit DNA.

    • Posted May 7, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      We could at least return to human genome the photolyase and gulonolactone oxidase that our Intelligent Designer stupidly forgot on the way.

  7. Posted May 7, 2017 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Last night I read an article from Great Britain about the burden on British healthcare in caring for many children of Pakistani first cousins who marry and produce genetically defective children. One of the adult children in such a family talks about the impact on her and her family of siblings dying (one at age two, one at 18), siblings with mental deficiencies, etc. Apparently, it is very common for Pakistani first cousins to marry. Although the resultant health issues for their children and the family is tragic, it affects everyone. CRISPR might be useful in a positive way in cases such as this.

    Pakistanis are not the only group of people who marry too closely within their group over an extended period leading to health problems for their children. At the present time, there are extremely conservative Jews and other religious groups such as the Amish who marry only within the group. Historically, German (and British) royalty developed health issues (some mental)due to intermarrying so much within the family. Ditto, Russian royalty and hemophilia. There were other families noted for their distinctive jawline. Etc.

    • nicky
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

      Do not forget that Darwin married his cousin, Emma Wedgewood. To be fair, he worried about the possible negative effects on his offspring.

      • somer
        Posted May 7, 2017 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

        but it wasn’t general practice to marry consanguinously in UK in Darwin’s time and he partly blamed such marriage for his son’s frailty and death. In UK 17% of the burden of disability is down to about 2-3% of the mainly Pakistani Muslim population that marries consanguinously usually by arranged marriage and often by returning to Pakistan to arrange the marriage.

    • somer
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

      Yes royal families were often inbred because they wanted to hold onto dynastic power. The Habsburgs occasionally resorted to sibling marriage and had all sorts of defects! The west really doesnt have a tradition of arranged marriage. Very small communities in harsh lightly settled or mountainous environments often had to be a bit inbred to survive but theres no excuse for a population of 120 million people settled in a land with a large and fertile river in modern times whatsoever.

  8. dogugotw
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    If you want an interesting speculative look ahead at where this kind of tech might lead, read Red Mars (written before CRISPR was worked out). The TL;DR – unlimited lifetimes, poly-sexuality, feathers, enhanced physical abilities, if you can dream it you can have it.

    • Wunold
      Posted May 8, 2017 at 1:40 am | Permalink

      My first thought after reading this article was, “yeah, superpowers!” 🙂

      But seriously, we could do well without all those pesky genetic flaws, diseases, and defects mother nature left us with.

      Just yesterday I learned about frontotemporal dementia which accounts for 20% of young-onset dementia cases.

      A higher proportion of FTD cases seem to have a familial component than more common neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.

      Alzheimer’s disease is said to have a genetic heritability ranging from 49% to 79%.

  9. Posted May 8, 2017 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Why scientists are in a hurry to develop genetic repairing methods
    If all of the people with rare genetic diseases lived in one country, it would be the world’s 3rd most populous country

    Statistics and Figures on Prevalence of Genetic and Rare Diseases
    Although rare and genetic diseases, and many times the symptoms, are uncommon to most doctors, rare diseases as a whole represent a large medical challenge. Combine this with the lack of financial or market incentives to treat or cure rare diseases, and you have a serious public health problem.
    Here are a few statistics and facts to illustrate the breadth of the rare disease problem worldwide:

    – There are approximately 7,000 different types of rare diseases and disorders, with more being discovered each day
    – 30 million people in the United States are living with rare diseases. This equates to 1 in 10 Americans or 10% of the U.S. population
    – Similar to the United States, Europe has approximately 30 million people living with rare diseases. It is estimated that 350 million people worldwide suffer from rare diseases
    – If all of the people with rare diseases lived in one country, it would be the world’s 3rd most populous country
    – In the United States, a condition is considered “rare” it affects fewer than 200,000 persons combined in a particular rare disease group. International definitions on rare diseases vary. For example in the UK, a disease is considered rare if it affects fewer than 50,000 citizens per disease
    – 80% of rare diseases are genetic in origin, and thus are present throughout a person’s life, even if symptoms do not immediately appear
    – Approximately 50% of the people affected by rare diseases are children
    – 30% of children with rare disease will not live to see their 5th birthday
    – Rare diseases are responsible for 35% of deaths in the first year of life
    – The prevalence distribution of rare diseases is skewed – 80% of all rare disease patients are affected by approximately 350 rare diseases
    – According to the Kakkis EveryLife Foundation, 95% of rare diseases have not one single FDA approved drug treatment
    – During the first 25 years of the Orphan Drug Act (passed in 1983), only 326 new drugs were approved by the FDA and brought to market for all rare disease patients combined
    – According to the National Institutes of Health Office of Rare Disease Research, approximately 6% of the inquiries made to the Genetic and Rare Disease Information Center (GARD) are in reference to an undiagnosed disease
    – Approximately 50% of rare diseases do not have a disease specific foundation supporting or researching their rare disease

    My comment: If you see someone claiming about random mutations and evolution, please correct the claims politely and ask him/her to stop pseudoscience. There is no such a thing as a mutation driven evolution or natural selection.

    • Posted May 8, 2017 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for this information. Some years back, before CRISPR, I read about an Ashkenazi Jewish group in the eastern US that was doing DNA testing of individuals planning to marry to find out if they were carriers of such terrible diseases as Tay-Sachs. Whether by DNA testing beforehand or CRISPR corrections afterward, if we have the tools to prevent and/or correct human suffering from disease, we should be able use them. We spend billions on treatments for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease, many of which do not and cannot cure the disease.

      Here’s an internet reference to DNA testing for
      Ashkenazi Jewish diseases:


  10. Posted May 8, 2017 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Doudna and Charpentier’s article isn’t offering a PDF (at least for me), and Unpaywall isn’t finding one either. Perhaps it’s only free to AAAS members?

    It’d be good to read Matthew’s piece on the ethics aspects, may email later. (Have to admit I can’t find an abstract for it, or a table of contents entry featuring it – not having much luck tonight it seems!)

  11. nicky
    Posted May 8, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I find that blog you linked to: ‘it is NOT junk’ by Michael Eisner very interesting. Thank you for that.

  12. Posted May 8, 2017 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    I’ll see if I can get the book – this something I want to learn more about for sure.

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] via A new book on CRISPR, gene editing, and their ethical implications — Why Evolution Is True […]

  2. […] Why Evolution Is True: A new book on CRISPR, gene editing, and their ethical implications […]

  3. […] And since I promised the last time that I will keep you all updated on the out-of-lab activities that you can indulge in this summer – check the live radio streaming worldwide, you might like some light music running while you are busy with your experiments. And because many of us at CSG are also keen on building a library of Goodreads in Science, there is one out by Prof. Jennifer Doudna and her former postdoc, Samuel Sternberg on gene editing by CRISPR, called ‘A crack in the creation‘. […]

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