The future of genetics is promising, but is it ethical?
The future of biology and genetic research was on full display for students and spectators to see as part of the Center Research In Science (CRIS) Science and Faith events series.
The full title of this event was called “Gene Editing: Who Draws the Line?” It was held in the Segerstrom Science Center Thursday, Oct. 5. The main speaker for the lecture was Dr. Ting Wu, a professor of Genetics, director of the Consortium for Space Genetics and the founding director of the Personal Genetics Education Project (pged.org) at Harvard Medical School.
“I’ve always been disturbed by disparity and by individuals not having equal access to what’s available,” Wu said. “So that’s always been there and as it became clear that genetic technology were going to start to be applied to help human welfare, that’s when I realized as a geneticist I had a responsibility to do something about disparity.”
Wu started by sharing a lecture with a slideshow talking about all the research of gene editing she and other researchers did. After her lecture, two more speakers joined Wu for a panel discussion about gene editing.
The other two guests were Dr. Nathan Joh and Dr. Rico Vitz. Joh has 18 years of experience in researching structural biophysics focusing on evolution of information encoded in DNA. Vitz is the Department Chair of philosophy at APU.
Wu said that she started working in genetics in 1980. She defined gene editing as “taking a region and making it how you want to be.”
Dr. Louise Huang, the director of CRIS, organized and hosted the event.
“I’m very pleased with the turnout,” Huang said. “There are so many who care enough to spend a couple hours with us to learn more and to be a difference maker. I really believe knowledge is empowering rather than ignorance is bliss.”
Every seat was filled in the lecture hall. One of the students in attendance was Abel De Castro, a senior organismal biology major, who heard about the event from Huang and the posters from the different clubs around campus.
“I think it was very helpful for a lot of people, especially for people who haven’t been introduced to a lot of the genetic techniques like using the zinc finger nucleases, the TALENs, the CRISPR Cas9,” De Castro said. “ I think Dr. Wu did a good job at explaining that at a level at which people could really understand and grasp but it was also interesting to hear the panel, as far as what their opinions were.”
Wu talked about the first geneticist from over a hundred years ago, Nettie Stevens, who discovered the white chromosome. Wu described her as one of her heroes but she was not the main reason why she pursued this field of work.
“I was having a good time. I think if you are fortunate enough to find something that you enjoy doing and that the world appreciates enough to support you on, it’s a real blessing,” Wu said. So I think that was one of the reasons why I got started but now, I’m at a medical school and I’m in science because I hope that some of the things that I do are going to help human welfare, earth welfare.”
One of the discussion points in the lecture and panel discussion from audience questions was about transhumanism. Transhumanism is a theoretical future based on the premise that humans in their current forms are not at the end of their development, but rather at a comparatively early phase.
Joh and Vitz shared their thoughts on transhumanism, as it was the first question asked by the audience.
Joh proposed to be open minded, positing that a form of transhumanism is not unprecedented by using an analogy of him coloring his hair to get rid of gray spots.
“The big takeaway though with that is just that [gene editing is] a very scary piece of technology that we really have to be careful with as far as advancing the future of biotech,” De Castro said.
Huang said these events are meant to be a springboard to deeper and more thoughtful conversations and to think more about this before drawing a conclusion.
The next CRIS Science and Faith event will be “What is Intelligence? The Science and Theology of Human versus Artificial Intelligence.” It will be held on March 21 from 5 to 6 p.m. in the Segerstrom Science Center.