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HITLER'S GETTING CRISPR

Dreamed (August? September? October?) 2015 by Jennifer Doudna, as told to Michael Specter

Jennifer Doudna is a professor of chemistry and of moleular biology at UC Berkeley. She is one of the world's leading researchers in gene modification using a tool called CRISPR which allows cheaper and more precise genetic alterations, with huge implications for medicine and agriculture.

The following dream is from "The Gene Hackers" by Michael Specter, an article in The New Yorker, 2015/11/16, pp 52-61 (dream: 61).

Doudna is a highly regarded biochemist, but she told me that not long ago she considered attending medical school or perhaps going into business. She said that she wanted to have an effect on the world and had begun to fear that the impact of her laboratory research might be limited. The promise of her work on CRISPR, however, has persuaded her to remain in the lab.

She told me that she was constantly amazed by its potential, but when I asked if she had ever wondered whether the powerful new tool might do more harm than good she looked uncomfortable. "I lie in bed almost every night and ask myself that question," she said. "When I'm ninety will I look back and be glad about what we have accomplished with this technology? Or will I wish I'd never discovered how it works?"

Her eyes narrowed, and she lowered her voice almost to a whisper. "I have never said this in public, but it will show you where my psyche is," she said. "I had a dream recently, and in my drearn" [here she mentioned the name of a leading scientific researcher] "had come to see me and said, 'I have somebody very powerful with me who I want you to meet, and I want you to explain to him how this technology functions.' So I said, Sure, who is it?

"It was Adolf Hitler. I was really horrified, but I went into a room and there was Hitler. He had a pig face and I could only see him from behind and he was taking notes and he said, 'I want to understand the uses and implications of this amazing technology.'

"I woke up in a cold sweat. And that dream has haunted me from that day. Because suppose somebody like Hitler had access to this--we can only imagine the kind of horrible uses he could put it to."

EDITOR'S NOTE

Hitler would be warning enough without a snout; why did the dream add that piggish touch? If I dreamed of a pig-man, I might consider him a symbol for greed, or sexism, or (in California) cops, or insufficient bathing. But context matters! A pig-faced man may have a current, rather specific meaning to researchers using CRISPR. Just two pages earlier, Specter described a recent experiment by George Church (Harvard/MIT):

...he had edited sixty-two genes simultaneously in a pig cell. The technique, if it proves accurate and easy to repeat, could help alleviate the constant shortage of organ donors in the US. For years, scientists have tried to find a way to use pig organs for transplants, but a pig's DNA is full of retroviruses that have been shown in labs to infect human cells. Church and his colleagues discovered that those viruses share a common genetic sequence. He deployed CRISPR to their exact locations and snipped them out of the genome. In the most successful of the experiments, the CRISPR system deleted all sixty-two of the retroviruses embedded in the pig's DNA. Church then mixed those edited cells with human cells in the laobratory, and none became infected.
In short, CRISPR makes literal pig-men conceivable. So Hitler's pigface may suggest not merely that he wasn't a nice guy; it may hint that Doudna's dreaming mind sees CRISPR-modified transplanting as the entry wedge for the mass use of CRISPR, making the technique available to little Hitlers everywhere. And I think Doudna's dream argues that some of her colleagues are politically blind--blind to a human propensity for evil that's as plain as the snout on your face.

--Chris Wayan



LISTS AND LINKS: nightmares - animal people - pigs - Hitler and Nazis - biotechnology - science and politics in general - ethics

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