If you follow the world of biohacking in gene editing, you’ve undoubtedly heard of CRISPR and Kevin Esvelt. Kevin is an associate professor at MIT and runs the Sculpting Evolution program through MIT’s Media Lab. Why is he important? He’s the guy who discovered a way to edit life out of existence. Literally. “But why?!” you might be asking yourself. Well, to save humanity from itself, of course.
But let’s take a step back and better understand what Kevin is working with. Maybe you’ve heard of CRISPR, a revolutionary gene editing tool discovered by Jennifer Doudna in 2012. It’s been described as molecular scissors, essentially giving us the ability to “cut” a piece of DNA and replace it with a new piece. It’s the cut and paste function a computer, but with the building blocks of life. This seems like a terrible idea, the kind of thing every sci-fi movie about anything has warned us about. But the ability to change ourselves, enhance the human body, enhance other animals… this isn’t new. We do this currently through selective breeding in animals and cross breeding plants. What’s different about CRISPR is that we can affect those changes immediately.
So what does that have to do with Kevin?
Esvelt discovered a way to make the CRISPR changes in an animal carry on to the next generation, ad infinitum, by discovering something called gene drive. It adds a “code” to the DNA cut that tells it to happen again, and again. Prior to his discovery, changes made by CRISPR couldn’t be passed down generationally. Hypothetically you could tell a generation of mosquitoes, “okay, you’re going to detest the smell of humans so much that you won’t bite them ever again”. They’d live there fraught little lives, infecting animals with malaria instead of humans. Then they’d breed, die, and their offspring would be ravenous for human blood again. Considering the lifespan of a mosquito isn’t long, there wouldn’t be much effect in reducing the threat of malaria. But then gene drive… suddenly you have a population of little buggers who despise humans that are breeding with buggers who love them. The encoded CRISPR overrides human love with human hate. Voila. Malaria stops spreading by its main vector and we’ve stopped one of the worst zoonotic infections.
This brings us to why Kevin can’t die.
- Esvelt has a project in the works on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket right now called Mice Against Ticks. He’s trying to solve the problem plaguing the islands: Lyme disease. The cute little white footed mouse is a primary carrier for Lyme. Ticks bite the mice, become infected, and transfer that infection to their next host: humans. Kevin’s idea was to introduce Lyme resistant mice, encoded with CRISPR, into the island population. Over time, these Lyme free mice would take over the infected mouse population. Then, when ticks bite these new mice, they wouldn’t get infected and carry it to the next meal. This project has been very slow, and purposefully so, because Kevin sought out the input from the community first instead of pushing through his plan. He has a moral responsibility to communities gene drive might affect. If any human has the capacity to wield god-like powers, we want it to be someone that is willing to take criticism and feedback into account.
- Sitting in the wrong hands, gene drive could potentially wreak havoc on our Earth. Esvelt wants the technology to only be held by nonprofits. In America, corporations can make infinite amounts of money and do anything they want with their profits, after taxes of course. Nonprofits can also make infinite amounts of money, but to keep their tax-exempt status, they must invest that profit back into their company and into the communities they serve.
So a public or private corporation armed with gene drive could be a secret as it wanted to… planning the complete demise of rats or all the Steves. We’d never know how much money they’d be putting into research and development, or how much they could profit off of having every Steve wiped off the planet.
Nonprofits, by law, must be transparent about what money comes in, who’s donating, and how all that money is spent. It doesn’t mean Steve would be safe, but it does mean there wouldn’t be a monetary incentive to decimate all the Steves. Who would donate to an organization whose mission statement is “to be rid of all the Steves in this world in perpetuity”? That market is hopefully quite small.
Kevin Esvelt has held his gene drive technology close, and it doesn’t seem like he’s about to divulge his techniques to just anyone. Steve haters of the world, you’re going to have to find another way.
- Along with keeping his tech secret, he’s put together a series of protocols to ensure CRISPR, and its role in gene drive, is used responsibly. One of the ways he’s planned on ensuring we don’t just get rid of all the Steves, is to make gene drive easy to see to any other person diving into the DNA of living things. Every edit made should have a unique signature permanently attached to it so if Steves do indeed start dying off, the SteveEnding edit can be easily reversed and not passed down to future Steves. Essentially gene drive is telling the new DNA, “hey, we want this cell to stop Steve from growing. Please make it so, as this bit of CRISPR code suggests.” Anyone seeing this directive can say, “whoa, hold on there. Let’s let Steve live, yeah? Please ignore this CRISPR code and replicate normally.” Having controls in place like this is essential. Kevin wants every change to be as small as possible to affect change, and for those changes to be reversible.
- Esvelt and his team have run through every doomsday scenario they can fathom. They feel as prepared as they can be with the knowledge they have, and they’re not sharing that knowledge. Imagine creating something that could completely change life as we know it, and telling everyone how to weaponize it? That would be stupid. Kevin is not stupid. There are inevitably many ways CRISPR and gene drive could be used as a weapon, and letting everyone know how to do that would be like giving the nuclear football to a TV celebrity and telling the world, “best of luck!” Do we want to wipe out all the Steves? Certainly not. Do we want to wipe out all mosquitos or white-footed mice? We *could* do that with gene drive. The short term implications might be positive. No more malaria! No more Lyme disease! But long term, the ecosystems that rely on those buggers for food would collapse. We can’t really predict all the negatives, but we can likely assume there would be more negatives than positives.