Last scientist in Congress has human genetic engineering warning

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.

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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.

These tools are revolutionary because they enable any researcher with basic capabilities in molecular biology to edit genomes. Therein lies the promise and the danger. Anyone with $300 and Internet access can now buy their own CRISPR kit to begin primitive genome editing of plants and animals.

It works like an old-fashioned film reel, where a director can cut apart a film, take frames out and fill them in with something new. Already, this tool is in daily use in laboratories around the world, editing DNA to produce genetically customized versions of organisms from cell cultures to insects, plants, mice and monkeys.

There is the possibility of great benefit from these new technologies. Animal models with specific genetic variations are being created to greatly accelerate research to determine the links between genetics and disease. In agriculture, it has the potential to vastly accelerate our ability to develop more productive crops, better biofuels and favorable animal characteristics like high growth rates and stronger immune systems to reduce the need for antibiotics. However, environmental risks are also amplified.

Yet what really makes this tool revolutionary is what it could mean for humans. Many of the potential applications of this technology are likely to be non-controversial: for example, replacing the bone marrow of someone suffering from a sickle-cell disease with a modified version of their own marrow but with the genetic defect removed. Genetic modifications of this kind will only carry risks to a single person and not affect future generations. However, if genetic modifications are made to “germline” cells — sperm, eggs and
embryos — these modifications will also be carried forward to future generations. This will fundamentally change the course of human evolution and is something ethicists have been concerned about for decades.

Although none of these tools have yet demonstrated the reliability necessary for safe clinical modification of the human germline, the rate of technological progress is such that it is prudent to begin thinking through the implications. Many in the scientific community believe there are critical ethical, legal and safety questions that must be answered before this research advances. Earlier this year, many of the most respected scientists in the field published a letter calling for a moratorium on human germline modification for clinical applications, warning that “there is an urgent need for open discussion of the merits and risks of human
genome modification.”

So serious is the potential for CRISPR and related tools that the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine recently announced they will launch a major international initiative to develop guidelines for human gene editing. Additionally, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, on which I serve, hosted the first congressional hearing on the topic.

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.

We are on the verge of a technological breakthrough that could change the future of humankind; we must not blindly charge ahead. Now is the time to engage in serious and thoughtful discussion about what this means for the future of the human race.

Foster, a physicist, represents Illinois’s 11th Congressional District and has served in the House since 2008. He sits on the Financial Services and the Science, Space and Technology committees.