Starting a (CRISPR)conversation

Being part of a Berkeley CRISPR lab can sometimes be daunting, especially because of how quickly the field is moving forward. But on most of the time I consider myself lucky. One of those times was this past August, when I attended CRISPRcon.

On August 16 and 17, an eclectic group of prominent scientists, doctors, community leaders, corporate executives, educators, environmentalists, and policy-makers gathered at UC Berkeley. They were united by one common vested interest: the future of genetic engineering.

CRISPRcon” — as this gathering was called – was organized by the Innovative Genomics Institute to  bring together voices of the people who stand to be most impacted by the advent of CRISPR gene-editing technology. The CRISPR-Cas system, discovered in Jennifer Doudna’s lab in Berkeley, has accelerated progress in the field of genetic engineering at an unprecedented rate, and opened windows to possibilities we otherwise could not have imagined for decades.

As a PhD student in a CRISPR technology lab, I was simultaneously giddy and apprehensive to be present for these conversations. I went in expecting a series of monotonic lectures by researchers, some boasting a 0.2% improvement in cell-survival outcomes; others making bombastic claims about how their secret proprietary (and coincidentally expensive) technique is the obvious next step forward in molecular biology;  and still others  displaying complicated graphs meant to depict a slight downward trend in off-target effects (but only if you squint your eyes). Exciting stuff maybe, if you’re someone who spends all their waking hours thinking about CRISPR… but as conventions go, pretty dry.  

But my expectations were wrong.  I found myself completely entranced: the panels covered everything from therapeutic applications of CRISPR, to genetic engineering of food, to the legal regulation of gene-editing technologies, to how best to educate the public  The speakers, surprisingly, were not all biomedical researchers, but instead a diverse set of  representatives from various corporate, public, and community interests.

The panel on “genome surgery,” for example — a catchy term for the use of  CRISPR to treat genetic diseases with unprecedented precision — consisted of a representative from the Minority Coalition for Precision Medicine, a CRISPR biomedical scientist from UCSF, a professor of English and disability studies, a professor of bioethics, and a medical doctor from the Benioff Children’s Hospital. The panel discussed both the practicalities of using CRISPR to treat diseases, and how  to ensure that such treatments would be available to all. The panel on genetic modification of food and agricultural products included voices from the Humane Society, a sustainable food advocacy group, a commercial farming equipment manufacturer, the owner of an organic produce farm (himself a farmer for thirty years), and a consumer food transparency advocacy group. The panel focused on prioritizing consumer health and wellness against the looming global food crisis. (Additionally, each panel allocated time to address questions and comments from the audience who were submitting questions through an app in real-time, a feature I was deeply impressed by.)

The mission of CRISPRcon wasn’t to reach consensus among everyone about the future of this technology. It was far simpler—to start a conversation.

In the end, the only thing everyone present could agree upon was to disagree with each other. The discussions at these various panels inevitably led to differences-of-opinions among panelists as well as audience-members. On the surface, it looked like the only thing CRISPRcon had been able to achieve was to highlight the tremendous divides between groups of people about the societal implications of genetic engineering. However, the mission of CRISPRcon wasn’t to reach consensus among everyone about the future of this technology. It was far simpler—to start a conversation. And for the most part, CRISPRcon did exactly that. It might seem that everyone had a strong opinion about the future of CRISPR, but in reality all that means is that everyone had a strong vested interest in this technology and its broader implications. And thus, democracy prevails. As the participants left CRISPRcon, it is easy to imagine that they left more optimistic than they came, because they were all now a part of the larger conversation. The future of gene-editing is bright, democratic, and equitable (citation needed).

As a scientist, it is easy to lose sight of the broader implications of my work, especially when the only markers of success are publications in an academic journal or a successful grant application. The conversations I witnessed at CRISPRcon  reminded me of the importance of basic science. A day at the bench is another day’s progress towards a larger natural truth, a deeper understanding of the world we live in, and — hopefully — a better quality of living for everyone.

Featured image obtained from Credit: Jenna Luecke and David Steadman, Univ. of Texas at Austin.

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