What happens when human beings take control of their own evolution?

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Over the past decade, scientists have developed what was once just the subject of dystopian fiction: gene editing technology.

It's known as CRISPR. Jennifer Doudna, a professor of molecular and cell biology and chemistry at the University of California Berkeley, was a key member of the research group that developed the technology. She's also the co-author of the recent book A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution.

A straightforward description of CRISPR is mind-boggling in what it suggests. As Doudna writes, “the genome — an organism’s entire DNA content, including all its genes — has become almost as editable as a simple piece of text.” It is possible that when the history of this era is written, most of our obsessions — Trump, tax rates, cybersecurity, Obamacare, NFL protests — will be forgotten, and CRISPR will be where historians focus.

With great power comes great responsibility — and genuine terror. Doudna had a nightmare as her lab and others started to use CRISPR to make heritable changes in genes. She dreamed that her colleague wanted her to meet someone interested in her research — and it was Adolf Hitler with a pig face, waiting to take notes on the technology she developed. She awoke from that dream in a cold sweat. And the concerns that dream represent pushed her to discuss the implications of CRISPR technology publicly.

CRISPR could do enormous good or tremendous harm — or both. In this conversation, Doudna and I discuss its possibilities, its dangers, its technical obstacles, the regulatory questions it raises, and much more.

Books:

The Double Helix by Jim Watson

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

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