Life Science: Risks of the Revolution

Like any major new technology, genomics carries the potential for major catastrophe. What are the risks and how can they be contained?
  • Transcript


Question: What are the main risks posed by the genomics revolution?

Juan Enriquez: So, anytime you bring a really powerful new technology to market there are multiple implications. You start changing the relative position of countries. When you brought the Industrial Revolution in, all of a sudden India and China went from being the dominant global powers to being powers dominated by those who understood how to apply this new technology.

When you brought the digital revolution in, all of a sudden, you could build a country like Singapore and take that country, which had the income per capita of Ghana in 1965, and make it something similar to the United States in one generation. As these things roll through the economy, who’s rich and who’s poor can shift very quickly depending on who is literate in this stuff. So, one of the risks is, our educational system doesn’t adapt, our society doesn’t adapt and we become illiterate in the world’s dominant language.

The second risk that you’ve got to think about is, these technologies are so powerful that, like the Industrial Revolution, they can have unintended consequences. Like the agricultural revolution, it can have unintended consequences. And we really have to think about how we apply them and one of the first things we should be doing is pushing a non-proliferation treaty that has real teeth to the application of life code for offensive purposes. That’s something that we have to get much more serious about.

The last thing that I think, and there’s a long list of these, but the three main things; the last thing I think we’ve got to think about is unintended consequences and I think there it is particularly important to have genes that are self-regulating that cutoff, that don’t reproduce outside of very specific environments and that allows us to understand what these things are doing and where they’re growing and to have control conditions on where they’re growing. 

Having said all that, unless this is the first technology that humans have every invented that doesn’t harm a human being, we are going to have accidents. And we’ve had those with staircases, we’ve had those with airplanes, we’ve had those with automobiles, we’ve had it with electricity, and steel. I think the benefits are of such an order of magnitude that it is well worth pursuing this life science revolution and those countries that do it will be the dominant countries.

Question: How can this technology be kept out of the wrong hands?

Juan Enriquez: You know, there’s a whole series of debates as to how open you should be with this technology. So, the question then becomes do you create a super class of people who understand how life works, and how to apply it and how to read it and how to write it and how to keep everybody else in the dark, or do you broadly let this technology out there. This came to a head when scientists sequenced the 1918 flu, which killed so many people. Like, 1918 or 1914.

And in the measure that you begin to understand how that flu is constructed, what makes that flu, then you also begin to understand how other diseases are made. And then there was a second debate when people sequenced smallpox. Should you allow people to understand how smallpox is made? After a lot of debate and a lot of work, what people decided is, it makes a great deal of sense to be open in the system and allow people to begin to build the vaccines against this, to build better flu vaccines. I mean, we’re still making them in eggs that come out of chickens. And we can see the consequences of that with the current H1N1 lack of vaccines.

Whereas, if we allow this code to go out and we let it be open source, then we’re going to put together something where a lot people can be working on solving these problems. 

Now, will there be some bad eggs out there? Yeah, there are. And there are bad eggs in a series of places. I think we need some control of the assembly mechanisms and the specific gene sequences ordered to assemble some of these things in such a way that if somebody starts making something particularly nasty, we (a) find out about it and we (b) ask, “What are you doing,” and, “Why are you doing this?”

Recorded on November 9, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen