Gene Editing: Life and Law Beyond the Human

Participants, Abstracts, Bios


Discussants and Commentators


Gaymon Bennett

Gaymon Bennett, PhD, Assistant Professor of Religion, Science, and Technology, School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies, Arizona State University

Biopolitical Secession: Political Ontologies and the Art of Making Life

Abstract: In this paper, I seek to put in anthropological perspective the economies of power and moral imagination into which CRISPR-Cas9 and related gene editing technologies are presently being incorporated. My aim is to think through how these regnant economies actively occlude alternative orderings of life, and our responsibility to and for it. For reasons I will elaborate in the paper, I propose to call these alternatives political ontologies of redemption. Such alternative ontologies, I will argue, are latent in the arts of gene editing. To the end of illuminating these alternatives and their significance for the question of “life and law beyond the human,” I will explore how shifts internal to the ethos of laboratory life, catalyzed by the diffusion of gene editing technologies, are generating unanticipated ontological dissonance within the moral and legal repertoires being mobilized to govern gene editing. I will likewise explore how it is that this dissonance ultimately gets covered over, and why I think it needs to be surfaced and examined. In order to do this, I will juxtapose ongoing developments in the use and governance of CRISPR-Cas9 with what I take to be pertinent developments in the political ontologies animating the counter-politics of climate change, ontologies that have been marshalled in response to COP 21. These ontologies—articulated through an unexpected convergence of multispecies ethnography, cultures of animism, and radical Catholic social theory—prime a “metaphysics of participation” in order to reimagine technological futures and their possible role in the redemption of human and non-human life. Whether this alternative imagination will have any serious material or moral impact on the futures of gene editing remains to be seen. Its pertinence here, I will argue, is that a “metaphysics of participation” is consonant with ontologies of redemption latent in the practice of gene editing, but dissonant with the instrumental and consequentialist economies being used to talk about and govern that practice. By inquiring into this consonance and dissonance, I will resituate the question of gene editing and its technical potentials within a broader frame of the possible vulnerabilities and redeem-abilities of life as such, vulnerabilities and redeem-abilities into which, for better or worse, these technological capacities will inevitably be enfolded.

Bio: Gaymon Bennett is Assistant Professor of Religion, Science, and Technology at Arizona State University. He works on the problem of modernity in contemporary religion and biotechnology: its shifting moral economies, contested power relations, and uncertain modes of subjectivity.  Read more.

Irus Braverman

Irus Braverman, LLB, SJD, Professor; William J. Magavern Faculty Scholar, School of Law, University at Buffalo

The Natures of Gene Drives

Abstract: When humans alter an organism’s genome, they typically reduce its ability to survive and reproduce, causing natural selection to eliminate it from the population (Esvelt 2016). Such is the case with Glofish and the Aqua bounty salmon (interview, Alan Blake). A gene drive occurs naturally when a genetic element spreads through a population over generations despite not providing reproductive advantage. The advent of CRISPR-Cas 9 genome editing makes it not only possible but also relatively easy to artificially insert synthetic gene drives into the genome, thereby enabling irreversible alterations of wild populations, whether to protect, suppress, or eliminate them. My paper will draw on ethnographic encounters with gene drive scientists to explore the meaning of nature in their perceptions and how this meaning affects their ethical perspective and their ideas of governance. I plan to interview several additional scientists working on gene drives in rodents and mosquitoes to understand their perception of nature and its affects on their scientific work.

Bio: Irus Braverman is Professor of Law and Adjunct Professor of Geography at SUNY Buffalo, where she teaches Criminal Procedure, Law and Nature, and topics related to legal geography. Her main interests lie in the interdisciplinary study of law, geography, and anthropology.  Read more.

Amy Hinterberger

Amy Hinterberger, PhD, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology, University of Warwick, UK

Chimeric Life and the Human in Biology

Abstract: This paper considers how contemporary gene editing technologies intersect with the creation of chimeric life in biomedical research. The contemporary life sciences are bringing into being new associations between species and organisms, individuals and groups, humans and non-humans. Here I focus on researchers interested in mixing human stem cells into very early pig embryos and letting them develop with idea of creating a “bespoke pig” with a human organ that is genetically identical to an existing intended human recipient. Such a chimeric animal (named as such because it would be a single organism composed of genetically distinct cells) has not yet been realized, but a range of foundational forms of research work is underway that uses, among other technologies, zinc finger nucleases.

I will argue that chimeras are increasingly becoming an emblematic figure of post-genomic biology. This is because they represent genomic multitudes, defying conventional wisdom that there is only one genome in one organism (or body). However, I seek to loosen the somewhat compelling grip that chimeric life has as liminal, monstrous and on the margins. To the story of the chimera, this paper replies with another story, that of the human research subject, which intends to undo the former. The expansion of translational biomedical research (“from bench to bedside”), combined with a focus on human health for many governments and global markets have witnessed a dazzling expansion of ways to model, create and organize research around the category human. This material constitution of the category human at the cellular and molecular level, I suggest, should provoke a renewed interest in this supposedly settled domain. To turn away from this, may result in complicity, which can magnify, as opposed to undo the figure of the human as the central organizing figure of knowledge and morality in the twenty-first century.

Bio: Amy Hinterberger is an Assistant Professor of Sociology specializing in the sociology of medicine, science and technology. Her principal research interest is at the intersection of the social and life sciences, particularly on bioscientific research and its governance.  Read more.

J. Benjamin Hurlbut

J. Benjamin Hurlbut, PhD, Assistant Professor, School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University

Laws of Containment: Control without Limits in the New Biology

Abstract:  Recent advances in genetic engineering techniques, particularly those associated with CRISPR, promise extraordinary new powers to manipulate cells, organisms, and ecosystems. These techniques have emerged alongside a reorientation in the biosciences away from natural history to engineering, from analytic to synthetic biology. Although CRISPR/cas-9 was developed by slightly modifying an ancient bacterial system, it was quickly labeled a key contribution to the “synthetic biology toolkit.” This reorientation is evident, for instance, in the technological aspirations of the “New Biology,” capable of both discerning societal problems and generating technological solutions.

At the core of this vision is the imperative to intervene in life: no longer merely focused on expropriating the products of natural evolution to the controlled experimental environment of the laboratory, the New Biology begins with the presumption that its products will ultimately exit the laboratory and inhabit bodies, industrial systems, and ecosystems.  Corollary to the imperative of release is the necessity to render the techniques and products of the New Biology governable. The development of molecular biology was predicated on the promise of such control. Anxieties about risk and safety at the advent of recombinant DNA in the 1970s were allayed by the promise of containment: that the environment of the laboratory and the techniques employed therein would guarantee that its products could not escape into the wider world. One of the key innovations of that period was the idea of biological containment—of engineering living systems to be dependent upon laboratory conditions, such that were they to escape that environment, they could not survive. The idea of biological containment simultaneously affirmed and rejected worries about imperfect physical containment and gaps in biosafety rules and practices. Through techniques of bioengineering, law would be built into the living system itself, thereby engineering out reliance on brittle rules and fallible human practices.  Biological containment figures centrally in contemporary promises about the governability of biotechnology.

This paper explores how the idea of biological containment functions as an autochthonous repertoire of governance within the biosciences, how it is deployed to do the work of—and thereby displaces—conventional law, and how it simultaneously is underwritten by and underwrites the notion that biological life is thoroughly controllable, and thus governable. It examines in particular how with CRISPR’s prospect of radical new forms of biological transformation has come a corollary presumption of enhanced capacities for control and containment, capacities that are being put forth as the warrant for radical interventions in the wider living world.

Bio: J. Benjamin Hurlbut is trained in the history of modern biomedical and life sciences. His research lies at the intersection of science and technology studies, bioethics and political theory. Read more.

Todd Kuiken

Todd Kuiken, PhD, Senior Program Associate; Co-Director, Biology Collectives; Science and Technology Innovation Program, Woodrow Wilson Center

Vigilante Environmentalism: How New Genomic Technologies Could Change How We Manage, Value, and Govern Ecosystems

Abstract:  Vigilantes resurrect images of the Wild West where citizens put justice into their own hands in boomtowns where no forms of centralized governance had been established or enforced. Environmentalists have in the past used tactics which some have termed “ecoterrorism” in order to save what they believe are sacred and important ecosystems. It’s been suggested that recent developments with CRISPR–Cas9 and gene drive technologies could address disease vectors, invasive species and other conservation problems. Combined with the advent of crowdfunding platforms access to these technologies are no longer restricted to traditional actors. While these developments sound promising, they are being developed within a governance and risk assessment void.

The purported ability of these technologies to not just alter the natural environment but sculpt it for human benefit raises a very basic, albeit values laden question: Are human’s part of the natural world or separate from it?  And if/when we decide to create and/or manage an ecosystem how do we value it going forward? Understanding and evaluating the ecological effects of these genomic technologies will require broad interdisciplinary convergence and the ability to adapt to rapid technological developments. A more decentralized governance system will be needed that incorporates people working both within and outside conventional research settings and the utilization of crowdfunding platforms. One could look towards the DIY-biology community and their proactive culture of responsibility which is an advance on the post hoc scrambling that often occurs within the scientific establishment. For example, the US National Academy of Sciences did not begin to seriously discuss the risks associated with using the approach to engineer genes that could quickly spread through wild populations until after experiments demonstrating the concept in fruit flies had been published.

This talk will explore whether the increasing accessibility of genomic tools such as CRISPR–Cas9 and crowdfunding could create a new form of environmentalism? One which challenges the notion of “naturalness” by utilizing genomic technologies and what risk and governance frameworks should be established in order to evaluate this post Leopold world.  

Bio: Dr. Todd Kuiken is a Senior Program Associate with the Science and Technology Innovation Program where he explores the scientific and technological frontier, stimulating discovery and bringing new tools to bear on public policy challenges that emerge as science advances. Read more.

Jennifer Kuzma

Jennifer Kuzma, PhD, Goodnight-NCGSK Foundation Distinguished Professor; Co-Director, Genetic Engineering and Society Center, School of Public and International Affairs, North Carolina State University

Hubris or Humility in the Regulatory Assessment of Gene Drives?

Abstract: Research is occurring to develop genetically engineered (GE) strains of insects or other animals that are specifically designed to push or “drive” genes into populations in the environment. Some motivations for doing so include reducing populations of pests (population suppression) and immunizing beneficial or rare species against disease (population immunization). Gene drives, such as those based on the CRISPR-Cas9 system, have already been shown to work in laboratory-cage experiments with fruit flies and mosquitos, and several research groups are actively working towards deployment of gene drives for population suppression in the environment. These applications will be subject to some form of risk assessment and regulatory review in the United States, although the mechanisms and agencies involved are not entirely clear and will depend on the exact species and genes used.

In the United States, regulatory decisions have already been made for GE insects that contain self-killing systems, although they have not technically been based on gene drives. GE diamond back moths, pink bollworms, and Mediterranean fruit flies, all for self-population suppression, have been approved for release.  Regulatory assessments for these GE insects can serve as clues for how information, data, and uncertainties are likely to be considered in federal decision-making about gene drives. In this paper, textual analysis is used to closely examine the Environmental Impact Statements used to justify release of GE insects. The analysis shows that techno-optimism and “technologies of hubris” guide US decisions about GE insects released into the environment in that ambiguities are dismissed, normative assumptions buried, and possible harms ignored. Reasoning is inconsistent across different parts of the assessments in order to support this worldview.

Bio: Jennifer Kuzma's research focuses on governance systems for emerging technologies, particularly genetic engineering for environmental, agricultural, health and industrial applications. Read more.

Stuart A. Newman

Stuart A. Newman, PhD, Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy, Department of Cell Biology & Anatomy, New York Medical College

Gene Drives and Conservation

Abstract:  As technology becomes more powerful and versatile there is a natural inclination to use it to make things better. In the case of biotechnology, the object of which is to modify organisms, leaps in capability and precision are the stuff of each day’s news, and the impulse to use it to improve human health and socially desirable features is culturally entrenched. Cloning, a way to produce animals with a shared genome, is now used in the cattle industry, but the decades-old prospect of applying it to human reproduction has dwindled as it has become clear that vastly more than genes needs to be controlled to achieve desired biological outcomes. The CRISPR/Cas9 technique has been touted as being capable of making nearly error-free changes in DNA, and this has revived calls for human applications to eradicate disease and to eugenically advantage one’s children. But research increasingly shows that DNA is far from being a “code of life” and that there is no scientific basis for the notion that an organism’s presumed “genetic program” can be rewritten.

The reasons for this extend well beyond the existence of extra-genetic (“epigenetic,” environmental) determinants of embryonic development which make even identical genomes have variable expression. The most important impediment to rational genetic engineering, in fact, is the influence of evolution on the constitution of the genome itself. The basic body plans of animals were first established almost 600 million years ago in two relatively short periods, the Ediacaran and Cambrian “explosions.” The genes that were originally employed in setting the main features—body layers and cavities, segments (like our own vertebral bones), muscles, skeletons, nervous systems—are still with us. But their effects and roles (however simple and straightforward they were to begin with), have been connected and disconnected, integrated and reintegrated, partnered and repartnered with new genes, in different ways over the last half billion years. Thus, not only do different kinds of animals (e.g., chickens and mice) make the same structures (hearts, limbs), in different ways, but even the same kind of animal (e.g., human beings) use variable genetic means to accomplish the same or similar ends (regulating blood pressure, building a brain).

This evolutionary rewiring (“developmental system drift”) makes the idea of “engineering” an organism a virtual misnomer. Certainly some things could be reliably altered by CRISPR/Cas9-type techniques in a human embryo, but not without the risk of deranging other things that might have been “normal” in the unmodified subject. However, the impulse to genetically alter one’s offspring arises from the desire to make them biologically “better” than they would otherwise have been. What then will be the attitude toward the unsuccessful products of these inherently fallible methods? As the accuracy of the techniques improves, we might anticipate the rise of an Apple Inc.-type ethos for human production, with design or manufacturing errors becoming less and less acceptable to consumers. Will adoption agencies then become routes for the placement of factory “seconds”?

Bio: Stuart A. Newman is a professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College. Among his scientific contributions is a “physico-genetic” hypothesis for the morphological diversification (Ediacaran and Cambrian explosions) at the origin of the animals, formulation of the now-accepted mechanism for patterning of the vertebrate limb skeleton, and advancement of a novel scenario for the evolutionary origin of birds. Read more.

Ron Sandler

Ron Sandler, PhD, Professor, Department of Philosophy; Director, Ethics Institute, Northeastern University

Gene Drives and Conservation

Abstract: The ability to drive genetic change through wild populations constitutes a significant increase in the power of humanity (or at least those with access to the technology) to intentionally engineer ecological systems and communities. It enables new ways of addressing conservation challenges and accomplishing ecological goals. Many members of the conservation and environmental communities believe that we are in desperate need for powerful new tools such as this. As a result, a diverse array of possible environment applications for gene drives has been proposed, including curing diseases, eliminating invasive species, increasing genetic diversity, improving agricultural productivity, and facilitating adaptation to climate change. In this paper I conduct an ethics and value analysis of the possible environmental applications of gene drives. The aim is to assess the arguments in favor of employing them for particular conservation and environmental purposes, as well as determine which applications are supported by widely endorsed environmental and social values. A significant portion of the ethical discourse regarding gene drives intersects with broader discussions about the appropriate roles of human design and engineering in ecological systems. Therefore, this paper also situates gene drives within the ongoing discourse regarding how we ought to respond to pervasive, large-scale anthropogenic change.  

Bio: Ronald Sandler is an associate professor of philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, a researcher in the Nanotechnology and Society Research Group, and a research associate in the Environmental Justice Research Collaborative at Northeastern University. His primary areas of research are environmental ethics, ethics and technology, ethical theory, and Spinoza. Read more.

Alexander Travis

Alexander J. Travis, VMD, PhD, Associate Professor of Reproductive Biology, Baker Institute for Animal Health, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University

A “One Health” Approach to Gene Editing in the Domestic Dog

Abstract: The “One Health” philosophy emphasizes links between the health of humans, animals, and the environment.  One component of One Health is comparative medicine, which utilizes knowledge learned in one species to benefit others.  Recent advancements in reproductive technologies in the dog and gene-editing approaches such as CRISPR-Cas9 together position scientists to advance the health of both dogs and humans.  

The wide variety of domestic dogs was generated through selective breeding, manipulating the canine genome to enhance desired behavioral and physical traits.  This process is inexact; selection for some traits led to increased prevalence of other, undesired traits such as predisposition to specific diseases.  For example, dalmations are predisposed to urinary stones and golden retrievers to lymphoma.  Many of these deleterious traits and predispositions to disease have very close similarity to conditions in humans.  In fact, there are over 365 genetic traits and diseases in domestic dogs that are potential models for the corresponding human condition—twice the number of any other species.

“Gene editing” is a broad term for the specific alteration of a gene, particularly through the use of enzyme-based technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9.  “Gene repair” is the use of gene editing to replace a deleterious gene or piece of a gene with one that is naturally found in that species and which functions normally.  With recent advancements in canine in vitro fertilization (IVF), we can now more easily access canine embryos at the time required for injection of gene editing constructs.  This provides a level of efficiency that halves the number of dogs needed for research on canine gene repair in comparison to other methods.

Here, I propose that gene repair in dogs might provide significant medical benefits for both dogs and people.  Currently, if we identify specific mutations in dogs that cause or predispose disease, we can exclude individuals carrying these genes from future breeding.  This risks further limiting the gene pool and having other deleterious traits become fixed in the population.  With CRISPR-Cas9, we can attempt to repair these genes specifically and preserve the rest of the genetic diversity contained within that individual.  Many feel that the prevention of disease and suffering in non-human animals is desirable in and of itself.  However, performing these experiments in dogs might also provide critical technical insights leading to successful translation to the prevention of human disease and suffering.

Beyond translation to human medicine, we can also consider potential applications in endangered wildlife.  As populations become fragmented and inbred, deleterious traits become fixed, reducing their fitness.  There is increasing call to explore gene-editing technologies to preserve the health of these species.  Here, we should distinguish between gene repair using a normal gene from that species versus inserting a gene from another species to confer new traits.  Such efforts carry risk, as cascading impacts throughout an ecosystem could result from unpredictable changes in the species being manipulated.  One Health teaches us that human health depends on the health of the environment, and the first rule of medicine is “Do no harm.”

Bio:  Dr. Alex Travis’ lab explores a diverse set of subjects, ranging from technologies based on the very smallest biological machines to inquiries in wildlife conservation and sustainability at the landscape scale. Much of this work stems from his studies of reproduction and the function and preservation of sperm. His lab announced the birth of the world's first litter of puppies born by in vitro fertilization in 2015. Read more.

Discussants and Commentators

Lori Andrews

Lori Andrews, JD, Distinguished Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for Science, Law and Technology, Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology

Lori Andrews is Distinguished Professor at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. She received her B.A. summa cum laude from Yale College and her J.D. from Yale Law School. Andrews is the author of 11 non-fiction books, more than 150 articles, and three mystery books with a female geneticist protagonist. She chaired the federal ethics advisory committee to the Human Genome Project.  Read more.

Jim Bono

James Bono, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of History and Department of Medicine; Chair, Department of History, College of Arts and Sciences, History, University at Buffalo

James Bono's research interests include the cultural history of science and medicine during the Renaissance and early modern periods; the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries (especially the relations among language, religion, society, natural philosophy, medicine, and natural history); images, visualization, and technologies of the “literal” in early modern science; Read more.

Kevin Esvelt

Kevin Esvelt, PhD, Assistant Professor, MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Kevin Esvelt leads the Sculpting Evolution group, which invents new ways to study and influence the evolution of ecosystems. By carefully developing and testing these methods with openness and humility, the group seeks to address difficult ecological problems for the benefit of humanity and the natural world. Read more.

Marc Halfon

Marc Halfon, PhD, Professor, Department of Biochemistry, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, University at Buffalo

Research in my laboratory investigates the genetic regulatory circuitry that controls how cell fates are determined during development. We focus on two key aspects, intercellular signaling and transcriptional regulation, using primarily the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster due to its extremely well-annotated genome and amenability to experimental manipulation. Read more.

Stephen Hilgartner

Stephen Hilgartner, PhD, Professor, Department of Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University

Professor Stephen Hilgartner studies the social dimensions and politics of contemporary and emerging science and technology, especially in the life sciences. His research focuses on situations in which scientific knowledge is implicated in establishing, contesting, and maintaining social order--a theme he has examined in studies of expertise, property formation, risk disputes, and biotechnology. Read more.

Sheila Jasanoff

Sheila Jasanoff, PhD, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies; Director, Program on Science, Technology and Society, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University

Sheila Jasanoff is Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She founded and directs the Program on Science, Technology and Society. Jasanoff’s research centers on the interactions of law, science, and politics in democratic societies.  Read more.

Paul Vanouse

Paul Vanouse, MFA, Professor, Director, MFA Program, Department of Art; Program Head, Emerging Practices; Director, Coalesce Center for Biological Art, College of Arts and Sciences, University at Buffalo

Paul Vanouse has been working in emerging media forms since 1990. Interdisciplinarity and impassioned amateurism guide his art practice. For the past decade, Vanouse has been specifically concerned with forcing the arcane codes of scientific communication into a broader cultural language. Read more.