President Donald J. Trump could care less about biotechnology. How else to explain his total failure to engage the most important and portentous biotechnological issues of our day? In fact, the Trump administration’s policy void on these issues is so complete the president hasn’t even taken the rudimentary step of appointing a bioethics advisory council to advise him, Congress, and the public about the many ethical and safety concerns augured by recent research advances. Nor has he named a Science Advisor to give him informed in-house guidance. Heck, he hasn’t even issued a tweet: SAD!
But, to borrow a phrase: You may not be interested in biotechnology, but biotechnology is interested in you. Ignoring ethical and safety challenges presented by powerful emerging technologies will not make the problems they pose disappear. To the contrary, the current laissez faire</em >approach—consisting primarily of voluntary guidelines or government-funding limitations—threatens the world with substantial peril.
This isn’t hyperbole. And though the term “playing God” is a cliché, it aptly describes the naked power scientists are accumulating, which could lead to the substantial manipulation of biology on the planet, the creation of new and novel life forms, perhaps even the destruction (or elimination) of entire species if these technologies are mismanaged.
CRISPR: It’s almost easier to perform the CRISPR gene-editing process than it is to say what the acronym stands for: “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat.” Mouthfuls aside, CRISPR is probably the most consequential technological invention since scientists learned to split the atom.
CRISPR allows scientists to alter the genetic makeup of any cell or lifeform—viruses, bacteria, plants, animals, and us. If these alterations are done on sperm, eggs, or early embryos, the genetic alterations inserted into the organism will flow down the generations. CRISPR also makes it far easier to create chimeras, that is, plants or animals with genomes drawn from different species. As described a few years ago by Nature: “CRISPR is causing a major upheaval in biomedical research. Unlike other gene-editing methods, it is cheap, quick and easy to use, and it has swept through labs around the world as a result.” Indeed, as the technology continues to be perfected, it appears that the potential genetic modifications CRISPR permits will be limited only by the imaginations and creativity of the scientists who perform them.
Human Cloning: Considering that the prospect of human cloning was the stuff of provocative front-page headlines during the George W. Bush years, it is remarkable how muted the news coverage was (outside the science sector) in 2015 when human embryos were successfully manufactured through the same biotechnological process that led to the birth of Dolly the sheep. The lack of popular news coverage—enabled by scientists’ masking the import of the news by refraining from the c-word—does not change the potentially epochal nature of the event. Human cloning could—heck, probably will—one day lead to the birth of cloned babies, with potentially shattering sociological consequences. The technology is already being used in stem cell research, and some bioethicists advocate cloning patients who need transplants and gestating the clones in artificial wombs into the fetal stage to supply the needed organs. Scientists are also deploying a different but similar in-vitro technique to create “three-parent” embryos. Human cloning will also be invaluable in understanding how our genes express, furthering more sophisticated genetic engineering than can currently be deployed using CRISPR or other such technologies.
Synthetic Biology: Scientists are working on techniques that would permit the creation of life forms not found in the natural world. As described in Nature in 2015, a new form of life has already been created in the lab:
Genomics entrepreneur Craig Venter has created a synthetic cell that contains the smallest genome of any known, independent organism. Functioning with 473 genes, the cell is a milestone in his team’s 20-year quest to reduce life to its bare essentials and, by extension, to design life from scratch . . . . Venter says that the cell, which is described in a paper released on 24 March in Science, constitutes a brand new, artificial species.
The term “playing God” is an apt descriptor when human beings create a new species unconnected to evolution or Creation. Add in cloning and CRISPR technologies, and the potential for the radical transformation of the natural world is now within science’s reach.
The greater the power in the hands of fallible human beings, the more pressing the need for checks and balances. In this field, that means national regulations and international treaties and protocols. Instead, biotechnology today is substantially unfettered, and with that regulatory vacuum, the potential for catastrophe grows by the day.
The time has come for leadership. Only President Trump—the greatest media manager of our age—can focus the world’s attention on the potential problems associated with scientists playing God. Only his charisma can spark an international conversation about the scope of ethical rules that should maximize the benefit we receive from these technologies, while also constraining approaches that are morally destructive or unsafe. Only Trump can begin the process of fashioning treaties and international protocols to govern biotechnology, like those which have (more or less) successfully controlled the spread and governed the uses of nuclear energy.
Trump clearly wants to go down in the history books as a president of consequence. I can think of no better way for him to accomplish that goal than by leading us into the beneficent biotechnological future we want, rather than risking the potentially dystopian one we could passively receive.