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Dissecting the CRISPR-baby stories

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Dissecting the CRISPR-baby stories


After the 2017 meeting, He started reading biographies of scientific risk-takers who were ultimately hailed as heroes, from Edward Jenner, creator of the first vaccine, to Robert Edwards, pioneer of in vitro fertilization (IVF). In January 2019, he wrote to government investigators: “I firmly believe that what I am doing is to promote the progress of human civilization. History will stand on my side.”

Looking back at my notes from the 2017 meeting, I discovered that He had remembered only the first half of that provocative statement. It continued: “What’s going on right now is cowboy science … but that doesn’t mean that’s the best way to proceed … we should take a lesson from our history and do better the next time around.”

Learning from history?

Kevin Davies’s Editing Humanity follows a circuitous path through the remarkably diverse experiments and laboratories where the CRISPR puzzle was pieced together. The story of discovery is gripping, not least because Davies, a geneticist turned editor and writer, skillfully weaves together a wealth of detail in a page-turning narrative. The book gives a textured picture of the intersection of academic science with the business of biotechnology, exploring the enormous competition, conflict, and capital that have surrounded CRISPR’s commercialization. 

However, Davies’s book is heavy on the business of gene editing, light on the humanity. The narrative emphasizes the arenas of scientific discovery and technological innovation as though they alone are where the future is made.  

Humanity first appears as something more than an object of gene editing in the last line of the book: “CRISPR is moving faster than society can keep up. To where is up to all of us.” Yet most of us are missing from the story. Admittedly, the book’s focus is the gene editors and their tools. But for readers already primed to see science as the driver of progress, and society as recalcitrant and retrograde until it eventually “catches up,” this telling reinforces that consequential myth. 

Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breaker cleaves even more closely to scientific laboratories, following the personalities behind the making of CRISPR. The main protagonist of his sprawling book is Doudna, but it also profiles the many other figures, from graduate students to Nobel laureates, whose work intersected with hers. In always admiring and sometimes loving detail, Isaacson narrates the excitement of discovery, the heat of competition, and the rise of scientific celebrity—and, in He’s case, infamy. It is a fascinating story of rivalry and even pettiness, albeit with huge stakes in the form of prizes, patents, profits, and prestige. 

Yet for all its detail, the book tells a narrow story. It is a conventional celebration of discovery and invention that sometimes slides into rather breathless celebrity profile (and gossip). Apart from some chapters of Isaacson’s own rather superficial ruminations on “ethics,” his storytelling rehearses clichés more than it invites reflection and learning. Even the portraits of the people feel distorted by his flattering lens. 

The one exception is He, who gets a few chapters as an unwelcome interloper. Isaacson makes little effort to understand his origins and motivations. He is a nobody with a “smooth personality and a thirst for fame” who attempts to force his way into an elite club where he has no business being. Disaster ensues.

He’s story ends with a “fair trial” and a prison sentence. Here Isaacson parrots a state media report, unwittingly playing propagandist. The official Chinese story was crafted to conclude the He affair and align Chinese science with the responsible rather than the rogue.

Authorizing narratives

These stories of heroic science take for granted what makes a hero—and a villain. Davies’s account is considerably more careful and nuanced, but it too shifts to casting stones before seeking to understand the sources of failure—where He’s project came from, how a person trained at elite American universities could have believed he would be valorized, not condemned, and how he could get so far without realizing how deep a hole he had dug for himself. 

editing humanity

My overwhelming sense from my interviews with He is that far from “going rogue,” he was trying to win a race. His failure lay not in refusing to listen to his scientific elders, but in listening too intently, accepting their encouragement and absorbing things said in the inner spaces of science about where genome editing (and humanity) are headed. Things like: CRISPR will save humanity from the burden of disease and infirmity. Scientific progress will prevail as it has always done when creative and courageous pioneers push boundaries. Genome editing of the germline—embryos, eggs, or sperm that will pass changes down to future generations—is inevitable; the only question is who, when, and where. 

He heard—and believed in—the messianic promise of the power to edit. As Davies writes, “If fixing a single letter in the genetic code of a fellow human being isn’t the coveted chalice of salvation, I don’t know what is.” 

Indeed, as even Isaacson notes, the National Academies had sent similar signals, leaving the door open to germline engineering for “serious diseases or conditions.” He Jiankui was roundly criticized for making an edit that was “medically unnecessary”—a genetic change he hoped would make babies genetically resistant to HIV. There are, the critics argued, easier and safer ways to avoid transmitting the virus. But he believed that the terrible stigma in China against HIV-positive people made it a justified target. And the Academies left room for that call: “It is important to note that such concepts as ‘reasonable alternatives’ and ‘serious disease or condition’ … are necessarily vague. Different societies will interpret these concepts in the context of their diverse historical, cultural, and social characteristics.”

Science-centric storytelling implies that  Science sits outside of society, that it deals primarily with pure arenas of nature and knowledge. But that is a false narrative.  

He understood this as an authorization. These are the true origins of his grotesque experiment. The picture of He, and the scientific community he was embedded in, is a rather more ambiguous one than the virtuous science of Isaacson’s telling. Or, rather, it’s a more human one, in which knowledge and technical acumen aren’t necessarily accompanied by wisdom and may instead be colored by ambition, greed, and myopia. Isaacson does the scientists a disservice by presenting them as the makers of the future rather than as people confronting the awesome power of the tools they have created, attempting (and, often, failing) to temper promises of progress with the humility to recognize that they are out of their depth. 

Another cost of science-centric storytelling is the way it implies that science sits outside of society, that it deals primarily with the pure arenas of nature and knowledge. But that is a false narrative. For instance, the commercial business of IVF is a crucial part of the story, and yet it receives remarkably little attention in Davies’s and Isaacson’s accounts. In this regard, their books reflect a deficit in the genome-­editing debates. Scientific authorities have tended to proceed as though the world is as governable as a laboratory bench, and as if anyone who thinks rationally thinks like them. 

Humanity’s stories 

These science-centric stories sideline the people in whose name the research is done. Eben Kirksey’s The Mutant Project brings those people into the picture. His book, too, is a tour of the actors at the frontiers of genome editing, but for him those actors also include patients, activists, artists, and scholars who engage with disability and disease as lived experiences and not merely as DNA molecules. In Kirksey’s book, issues of justice are entangled with the way stories are told about how bodies should be—and not be. This wrests questions of progress from the grip of science and technology. 

Like Davies, Kirksey uses the He affair to frame his story. A skilled anthropologist, he is at his best when drawing out people’s own stories about what is at stake for them. Some of the most remarkable interviews in the book are with the patients from He Jiankui’s trial, including an HIV-positive medical professional who became more deeply committed to He’s project after he was fired from his job because his HIV status was discovered. 

Kirksey’s attention to human beings as more than engineerable bodies, and to the desires that drive the imperative to edit, invites us to recognize the extraordinary peril of reaching into the gene-editing tool kit for salvation. 

That peril is too often obscured by hastily spun stories of progress. On the final morning of the genome-editing summit in Hong Kong, less than 24 hours after He had presented his CRISPR-babies experiment, the conference organizing committee issued a statement simultaneously rebuking him and laying a pathway for those who would follow in his footsteps. Behind the statement was a story: one in which technology is racing ahead, and society needs to just accept it—and affirm it. A member of that committee told Kirksey why they had rushed to judgment: “The first person who puts it on paper wins.”

So far, the CRISPR story has been about racing to be the first to write—not just scientific papers, but the nucleotides of the genome and rules for the human future. The rush to write—and win—the future leaves little room for learning from patterns of the past. Stories of technological futures, thrilling though they may be, substitute a thin narrative of progress for the richness and fragility of the human story. 

We need to listen to more and better storytellers. Our common future depends upon it.

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The Download: a long covid app, and California’s wind plans

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The Download: a long covid app, and California’s wind plans


1 The Twitter Files weren’t the bombshell Elon Musk billed them as 
His carelessness triggered the harassment of some of Twitter’s content moderators, too. (WP $)
+ The files didn’t violate the First Amendment, either. (The Atlantic $)
+ Hate speech has exploded on the platform since he took over. (NYT $)
+ Journalists are staying on Twitter—for now. (Vox)
+ The company’s advertising revenue isn’t looking very healthy. (NYT $)

2 Russia is trying to freeze Ukrainians by destroying their electricity 
It’s the country’s vulnerable who will suffer the most. (Economist $)
+ How Ukraine could keep the lights on. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Crypto is at a crossroads
Investors, executives, and advocates are unsure what’s next. (NYT $)
+ FTX and the Alameda Research trading firm were way too close. (FT $)
+ It’s okay to opt out of the crypto revolution. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Taylor Swift fans are suing Ticketmaster
They’re furious they weren’t able to buy tickets in the botched sale last month. (The Verge)

5 The internet is having a midlife crisis
What is it for? And more importantly, who is it for? (Slate $)
+ Tim Berners-Lee wanted the internet to have an ‘oh, yeah?’ button. (Slate $)

6 We need a global deal to safeguard the natural world
COP15, held this week in Montreal, is our best bet to thrash one out. (Vox)
+ Off-grid living is more viable these days than you may think. (The Verge)

7 What ultra-dim galaxies can teach us about dark matter  
We’re going to need new telescopes to seek more of them out. (Wired $)
+ Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has some big plans for space. (Reuters)
+ A super-bright satellite could hamper our understanding of the cosmos. (Motherboard)
+ Here’s how to watch Mars disappear behind the moon. (New Scientist $)

8 An elite media newsletter wants to cover “power, money, and ego.”
It promises unparalleled access to prolific writers—and their audiences. (New Yorker $)
+ How to sign off an email sensibly. (Economist $) 

9 The metaverse has a passion for fashion 👗
Here’s what its best-dressed residents are wearing. (WSJ $)

10 We’ve been sending text messages for 30 years 💬
Yet we’re still misunderstanding each other. (The Guardian)

Quote of the day

“There is certainly a rising sense of fear, justifiable fear. And I would say almost horror.”

—Pamela Nadell, director of American University’s Jewish Studies program, tells the Washington Post she fears that antisemitism has become normalized in the US, in the light of Kanye West’s recent comments praising Hitler.

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California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles

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California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles


Research groups estimate that the costs could fall from around $200 per megawatt-hour to between $58 and $120 by 2030. That would leave floating offshore wind more expensive than solar and onshore wind, but it could still serve an important role in an overall energy portfolio. 

The technology is improving as well. Turbines themselves continue to get taller, generating more electricity and revenue from any given site. Some research groups and companies are also developing new types of floating platforms and delivery mechanisms that could make it easier to work within the constraints of ports and bridges. 

The Denmark-based company Stiesdal has developed a modular, floating platform with a keel that doesn’t drop into place until it’s in the deep ocean, enabling it to be towed out from relatively shallow ports. 

Meanwhile, San Francisco startup Aikido Technologies is developing a way of shipping turbines horizontally and then upending them in the deep ocean, enabling the structures to duck under bridges en route. The company believes its designs provide enough clearance for developers to access any US port. Some 80% of these ports have height limits owing to bridges or airport restrictions.

A number of federal, state, and local organizations are conducting evaluations of California and other US ports, assessing which ones might be best positioned to serve floating wind projects and what upgrades could be required to make it possible.

Government policies in the US, the European Union, China, and elsewhere are also providing incentives to develop offshore wind turbines, domestic manufacturing, and supporting infrastructure. That includes the Inflation Reduction Act that Biden signed into law this summer.

Finally, as for California’s permitting challenges, Hochschild notes that the same 2021 law requiring the state’s energy commision to set offshore wind goals also requires it to undertake the long-term planning necessary to meet them. That includes mapping out a strategy for streamlining the approval process.

For all the promise of floating wind, there’s little question that ensuring it’s cost-competitive and achieving the targets envisioned will require making massive investments in infrastructure, manufacturing, and more, and building big projects at a pace that the state hasn’t shown itself capable of in the recent past.

If it can pull it off, however, California could become a leading player in a critical new clean energy sector, harnessing its vast coastal resources to meet its ambitious climate goals.

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How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information

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How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information


It’s hard to describe the feeling that came after. It’s like everyone is coming to you and all kinds of information from all over the world is converging toward you and [people are] telling you: Hey, what’s happening here; hey, what’s happening there; do you know, this is what’s happening in Guangzhou; I’m in Wuhan, Wuhan is doing this; I’m in Beijing, and I’m following the big group and walking together. Suddenly all the real-time information is being submitted to me, and I don’t know how to describe that feeling. But there was also no time to think about it. 

My heart was beating very fast, and my hands and my brain were constantly switching between several software programs—because you know, you can’t save a video with Twitter’s web version. So I was constantly switching software, editing the video, exporting it, and then posting it on Twitter. [Editor’s note: Li adds subtitles, blocks out account information, and compiles shorter videos into one.] By the end, there was no time to edit the videos anymore. If someone shot and sent over a 12-second WeChat video, I would just use it as is. That’s it. 

I got the largest amount of [private messages] around 6:00 p.m. on Sunday night. At that time, there were many people on the street in five major cities in China: Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Wuhan, and Guangzhou. So I basically was receiving a dozen private messages every second. In the end, I couldn’t even screen the information anymore. I saw it, I clicked on it, and if it was worth posting, I posted it.

People all over the country are telling me about their real-time situations. In order for more people not to be in danger, they went to the [protest] sites themselves and sent me what was going on there. Like, some followers were riding bikes near the presidential palace in Nanjing, taking pictures, and telling me about the situation in the city. And then they asked me to inform everyone to be cautious. I think that’s a really moving thing.

It’s like I have gradually become an anchor sitting in a TV studio, getting endless information from reporters on the scene all over the country. For example, on Monday in Hangzhou, there were five or six people updating me on the latest news simultaneously. But there was a break because all of them were fleeing when the police cleared the venue. 

On the importance of staying objective 

There are a lot of tweets that embellish the truth. From their point of view, they think it’s the right thing to do. They think you have to maximize the outrage so that there can be a revolt. But for me, I think we need reliable information. We need to know what’s really going on, and that’s the most important thing. If we were doing it for the emotion, then in the end I really would have been part of the “foreign influence,” right? 

But if there is a news account outside China that can record what’s happening objectively, in real time, and accurately, then people inside the Great Firewall won’t have doubts anymore. At this moment, in this quite extreme situation of a continuous news blackout, to be able to have an account that can keep posting news from all over the country at a speed of almost one tweet every few seconds is actually a morale boost for everyone. 

Chinese people grow up with patriotism, so they become shy or don’t dare to say something directly or oppose something directly. That’s why the crowd was singing the national anthem and waving the red flag, the national flag [during protests]. You have to understand that the Chinese people are patriotic. Even when they are demanding things [from the government], they do it with that sentiment. 

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