Plan to Make Sure Gene Editing Doesn't Go Haywire

It’s summer, which means that it’s also tick season. Through their bites, these bloodsuckers pick up the bacteria that cause Lyme disease from white-footed mice and then spread those microbes to people. They do so with particular verve on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, where almost 40 percent of people have suffered through the rashes, fevers, and pain of Lyme.

For those beleaguered islanders, Kevin Esvelt has an offer.

Esvelt, an evolutionary biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wants permission to stop Lyme disease by genetically engineering white-footed mice to vaccinate them against Lyme. He’d start by injecting captive mice with either a protein found on the Lyme bacteria, or one in the saliva of ticks. Some of those rodents would develop antibodies against these proteins, becoming immune. Esvelt would identify the genes that produce those antibodies and transfer them into the genomes of mice that haven’t encountered Lyme, using the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR.

Esvelt’s really big idea isn’t about tinkering with genes. Instead, he wants to edit the scientific enterprise itself. He argues that scientists are too used to working behind closed doors, and too ineffective at anticipating the consequences of their research—and the consequences, in an age where biotechnology allows us to dramatically alter the world around us, could be catastrophic. The only solution is a kind of radical transparency, which Esvelt is practicing in Nantucket. By setting an example, he wants to change the way modern science is done so that it’s safer, more mindful of unintended consequences, and more respectful of the communities it inevitably affects.

Related Content