The specter of “planned personhood” crops up again and again throughout science fiction, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Star Trek’s “Eugenics Wars.” Genetic engineers in such stories are morally compromised at best, depraved at worst; their experiments bump up against human mysteries better left untouched. The 2012 discovery of the CRISPR/Cas-9 genetic scissors has brought us closer to realizing some of the best and worst of these imaginary worlds, and the scientific community has struggled to answer questions that may never be properly settled.
In October 2020, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their contributions toward the development of CRISPR technology, which can be used to alter the DNA of plants, animals, and micro-organisms with extremely high precision. As the press release announcing the winners put it, CRISPR genetic scissors make it “easy to rewrite the code of life.” Notably, the scissors were not invented by researchers in a lab, but rather discovered in a bacteriophage—one of the lowest forms of life—and adapted for scientific use. In a sense, CRISPR technology was buried in creation. Antibiotics, which were first found in mold, are similar. We are still scraping petri dishes to find instruments that have been available as long as life itself.
Despite receiving the Nobel for their efforts, however, both Charpentier and Doudna have expressed grave concerns regarding some of the uses to which their discovery has been put. In 2018, the scientific community was shocked by the revelation that He Jianku, a biophysics researcher in China, had genetically edited and implanted at least two human embryos under ethically suspect conditions. The resulting twin girls—the now-famous “CRISPR babies”—made international headlines. While their identities and welfare are not publicly known, many experts who reviewed He’s work are convinced that the girls suffer from some form of genetic disability. Doudna said she was “stunned and horrified” by his research, and Charpentier joined seventeen other scientists and ethicists in calling for a moratorium on human genome editing, at least for the purpose of creating a human child.