Gene Editing with an Abundance of Caution
A big story broke at the end of 2018 when He Jiankui, a biological researcher and associate professor at Shenzhen-based Southern University of Science and Technology, announced that he was the first person in the world to edit the genes of embryos that became live babies. Voicing strong opposition and condemnation alongside experts from many other realms, professionals from the science fiction circle were hardly surprised: Gene-edited humans have been a topic of science fiction for quite some time.
Dong Renwei, a renowned sci-fi writer with a master’s degree in cytology from Sichuan University and an honorary council member of the China Science Writers Association, published a book series titled Trilogy of Life in 2016. By authoring the three books, Natural Evolution, Artificial Evolution and Biosynthesis, Dong reached at least three conclusions.
First, manipulating life seems an inevitable trend. The evolution of early life forms occurred naturally in the wild. Early on, human beings began to interfere with the natural evolution process. A deeper understanding of cells enabled people to clone animals and plants, and even create test-tube babies. After decoding the secrets of DNA, the development of gene-editing technology has given humans the ability to “synthesize” new life forms which never existed on the planet. In 2010, U.S. scientists created a new species of bacteria in labs. Since then, theoretically speaking, artificial life has already been a reality.
Second, the manipulation of earth life has been realized even sooner than many expected. Before Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell using the process of nuclear transfer, was born in 1996, worldwide biologists considered cloning impossible in the scientific and technological conditions at the time. They believed that relevant breakthroughs wouldn’t come until the mid-21st century. Once again, the birth of genetically edited Chinese babies at the end of 2018 happened much earlier than most scientists expected.
Third, users of gene-editing technology can never be too cautious. Life science presents humans with risks as well as opportunities. The unknowns far outnumber the knowns. Satisfactory answers have yet to emerge for many questions related to gene editing. This is the key reason people need to handle the technology with great care.
I was outraged when I saw the news about the genetically edited babies. But at the same time, I was struck with complex emotions. I have been plagued and tortured by hereditary asthma since childhood. If the gene-editing technology existed when I was born, I might have been able to benefit from it — even if technology could cause other unforeseeable changes.
But those feelings are purely personal. Considering that edited genes may be passed along into the human gene pool, deploying gene editing without constraints seems like a horrible idea. However, there are many people with medical concerns like mine. Many are consumed by deadly genetic diseases that are much more serious than asthma. Where there is a need, there is a market. And a market creates motivating forces. With this in mind, one can see how gene editing could become safer in the future, and worries about unintended effects might be minimized.
Over the past few decades, humans have invented several technologies that could lead to our total destruction such as nuclear energy, nanotechnology and synthetic biology, just to name a few. In the eyes of science fiction writers, gene editing is just another entry on a constantly expanding blacklist. A lot of “horrible” technologies already exist in the world. We can never be too cautious when developing more of them.
A well-known science fiction writer, the author serves as the deputy director of the foreign news editorial department and the central news center of Xinhua News Agency.