Going Nano-Nuclear

Question: Will the promised nanotechnology boom ever come?

Reihan Salam: I think that it’s interesting. There are a lot of smart people who have argued that we’re actually living in an era of innovation stagnation. A friend of mine humorously was pointing out that whereas during the second industrial revolution you had trains and you had all this kind of really dramatic stuff, the telegraph, things that changed the world. Now okay, we had telephones, then we had computers, then we plugged telephones together with computers and then it was easier to buy airline tickets and stuff like that, and that was awesome, but I mean it’s not obvious how that has really changed the texture of our lives, whereas when you’re looking at nanotechnology, this idea of kind of manufacturing materials at the molecular level, well then we can do pretty much anything. I mean then you could build enormous numbers of nuclear power plants at radically low cost, which would mean that all electrical power would essentially be free, which means that I could surround myself with neon all the time and who knows what kind of effects it would have on my productivity, or a world in which we have machines that are comparable to humans in intelligence and could also be self-improving so that they could again lead all humans to live this tremendous life of luxury in which you could read machine-produced novels or organic novels written by actual people and that would be the job done by half of the population because, again, there is no other economically needful activity. I think that this would be a time of tremendous cultural chaos, but it would also be pretty exciting and neat to see because you would see human ingenuity manifest itself in all kinds of totally unpredictable, unfamiliar ways. So yeah, I think that actually the frustrating thing is that we’re always on the cusp of all of this stuff. I mean there are all these technologies that are like ten years away, pebble-bed nuclear reactors are ten years away.

You know you have nano-pants now, so I spill orange juice on my pants and they won’t stain. That’s pretty cool, but that’s not building nuclear power plants for $5. But I actually am kind of optimistic about this stuff if only because my basic view is that if we don’t have these radical technological advances we’ll all be doomed in the next 50, 60 years, and given that I don’t think we’re going to be doomed I kind of think that there is going to be some deus ex machina kind of thing that will rescue us all, and also when you look at the kind of climate change landscape, I mean you know people talk about cap and trade and it’s like, this is absurd. I mean we’re way past 350 parts per million. You need some kind of radical technological breakthrough to solve this problem, and again, unless Earth turns into a soupy mass in which we’re all dead and a volcano kind of swallows us all in molten lava, we need it. So it’s not really a negotiable thing.

Question: Can technological innovation make nuclear power safer?

Reihan Salam: I think that you’re already seeing lots of new designs for reactors, modular designs, et cetera that seem very attractive, seem radically safer than previous generations of nuclear power plants and when you’re looking at modular designs they solve a lot of different problems. They help solve a problem of cost. They also kind of might spur kind of manufacturing employment. They might spur kind of a new export market for the United States. But more broadly I mean it’s all embedded in this wider regulatory context, so when you’re looking at the NRC they probably don’t have enough staff to evaluate all of the kind of new designs that are coming out to feel kind of really secure about that and so I think that that’s one that’s really kind of holding us back whereas the Chinese, the South Africans, a variety of other places… In India there is a huge amount of work on thorium based nuclear power and creating an export industry around that, so I think that there are a lot of promising developments. It’s not obvious to me that the United States is going to be the pioneer in this regard again, because like a lot of first world countries we have this kind of tough regulatory process that will slow it down, but I do think that the kind of capital expenditures required to create nuclear power plants are going to decline and I think that if we move in this modular direction, we see nuclear power solve kind of smaller scale problems then I think it’s going to again be a flank attack on this big problem. So rather than have this centralize solution of let’s mimic France let’s allow people to kind of use a tiny nuclear power plant to operate a neighborhood or to operate some kind of like large-scale manufacturing facility.

The other thing, and this relates to a lot of the talk about the smart grid, the idea of a national electrical grid. This is a very attractive idea to a lot of people, but to me, modular nuclear power feeds in with district heating and a variety of other ideas for making our energy system more resilient rather than less resilient, so I wonder, rather than creating a kind of super centralized system perhaps it makes more sense for us to actually distribute the way that we distribute power… rather distribute power creation across the country in a way that is going to make us less vulnerable to kind of supply disruptions.

Recorded on November 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Could nanotechnology ever help us build nuclear plants at low cost? Or will we have to content ourselves with novelty items like "nano-pants"?

Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

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