Editor’s Note: The Genetics Issue

Welcome to our brave new world.
By Pat Joseph

Brave New World author Aldous Huxley came to Berkeley (his son’s alma mater) in 1962 and delivered a speech on campus entitled “The Ultimate Revolution.” It ended as follows: “Our business is to be aware of what is happening, and then to use our imagination to see what might happen, how this might be abused, and then, if possible, to see that the enormous powers which we now possess thanks to these scientific and technological advances be used for the benefit of human beings and not for their degradation.”

That pretty well captures the spirit of this issue, which is all about the genomic age and the genetic revolution that is rapidly unfolding before us.

Berkeley is at the very center of that revolution, thanks to Jennifer Doudna’s 2012 co-discovery of CRISPR-Cas9. Her programmable “molecular scissors” are poised to transform our world, as Cas proteins give us the power to revise genetic code by making precise cuts in DNA and inserting new material in the breach. Science writer Taylor Beck gives a fuller explanation of how it works in his piece, “Humanity’s Shiny New Tool.”

Like every tool since the ax, this new technology is double-edged. It promises to deliver wonders like personalized medicine, precision gene therapies, and quite possibly the long-sought cure for cancer. Gene editing will also deliver better crops and biofuels when we desperately need them, and maybe even malaria-free mosquitoes. In the coming years, everything from autism to Zika could be vanquished using CRISPR technology. At the same time, it raises the specter of a society like the one described in Huxley’s dystopian novel, where babies are cloned in labs, not formed in their mothers’ wombs. And, in the wrong hands, CRISPR could lead to new forms of bioterror and botched experiments loosed on the world like Frankenstein’s monster or the Island of Doctor Moreau.

One of the more unsettling things about the technology is how accessible it is. As one Berkeley researcher told me recently, if you can’t teach an undergrad to use CRISPR in two weeks, you’re doing something wrong. California’s Leah Worthington put that notion to the test for this issue, enrolling in a Berkeley Extension course on the technique. Read her journal of the experience here.

For the last in a trio of meditations on CRISPR, we asked novelist and Berkeley English professor Namwali Serpell to speculate on our genetically edited future. What came back is a piece of flash fiction that plays with the idea of palindromic repeats, after the final letters in the CRISPR acronym. Serpell wrote the piece, “A Mercy, A Sport,” in collaboration with her student Tyler King.

Rest assured, there’s more to the issue than just CRISPR. To round out the features, we have a story about home DNA tests and ancestry (by Yours Truly) and another on the controversial Nobel laureate Kary Mullis, Ph.D. ’73, who died in August. Mullis was instrumental in an earlier revolution in molecular biology; namely, PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, which allows scientists to make millions of copies of specific DNA segments. He was an oddity among researchers—a surfing, acid-dropping philanderer who denied the reality of both climate change and HIV/AIDS. Frequent contributor Coby McDonald wonders how Mullis should be remembered.

Our business is to be aware of what is happening, Huxley told his long-ago audience in Berkeley, but it’s not easy to keep up. Biotechnology is developing at such breakneck speed that every week brings news of further developments, many of which are disturbing. In China, babies have already been modified using CRISPR. And, also in China, Spanish scientists have created monkey-human embryos in the hopes of growing human organs and making better models for experimentation. This is not exactly the brave new world Huxley envisioned in 1932, but it sure carries echoes of it—and of Planet of the Apes to boot.

All of which is to say: CRISPR, this world-changing new tool, is here, ready or not. The genie is out of the bottle and there’s no putting it back. Our challenge now is to pay attention, and to do everything we can to harness its enormous powers for good.

As usual, we want to hear from you. Send us an email. Or mail letters to: California Magazine, 1 Alumni House, Berkeley, CA 94720.

From the Winter 2019 issue of California.
Filed under: Cal Culture
Image source: Photo courtesy of iStock // Collage by Leah Worthington
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Pat, before you take a giant leap to the brave new world of CRISPR, please make certain we have a stable civilization to leap from. The greatest problem for the human race today is that we have totally failed to actually do something that proves we have learned from the lessons of history, such as those documented in the history book series “The Story of Civilization” by two of our most famous historians Will and Ariel Durant whose paramount conclusion was: “When a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leadership to meet the challenges of change.” Today, one more (last?) time, our political and intellectual leaders have failed to meet the challenges of change and this fact of life is rapidly destroying our ability to protect and perpetuate an acceptable quality of life and our civilization even though we were warned by our own 2006 “Global Warning” special issue of CALIFORNIA alumni magazine, failures we continue to fail to overcome, as discussed in the cover story “Can we adapt in time?”: ‘Today’s central challenge may be to generate empathy for our descendants 50 or 100 years from now. (Scientists frequently cite 2050 in their warnings on the need to act on carbon emissions today.) Yet how possible is it for us to generate compassion for generations whose lives we cannot immediately imagine? (E.O.) Wilson has written that “compassion is flexible and eminently adaptable to political reality,” depending on one’s own allegiances. “So we therefore work like some great all-devouring juggernaut,” he explained to me, “and it takes a considerable stretch of the intellect to start thinking in terms of a centuries-long future.”’ https://alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/september-october-2006-g...
“COP25 climate summit ends in ‘staggering failure of leadership’ ” https://www.newscientist.com/article/2227541-cop25-climate-summit-ends-i... CALIFORNIA magazine warned us in 2006 yet both intellectual and political leaderships continue to fail to protect future quality of life for our newest generations. Does CALIFORNIA and/or UC have any better recommendations that we can implement immediately now that too many tipping points are threatening the entire human race since the “Global Warning” issue was published?
Pat, further proof that a “Brave New World” has been an impossible dream for our civilization to achieve was recorded in John Brockman’s 2007 EDGE Annual Question: WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT? https://stage.edge.org/annual-question/what-are-you-optimistic-about I have tried to believe in the impossible dreams of a brave new world for years ever since studying the contributions in this book, including techno-optimism by Lord Martin Rees, HAR1 by Freeman Dyson, morals by Sam Harris, Coraggio by George Smoot, Neuroscience by Marco Iacoboni, Us/Them Dichotomies by Robert Sapolsky, Climate Makeover by William Calvin, Commoditization of Knowledge by Roger Schank, Evolution by Haim Harari, Democracy (vs Ochlocracy) by Mark Pagel and a conclusion by Corey Powell. One more time, can UC make the right things happen before time runs out?