Australian science educator Vanessa Hill was chatting to a friend in a Melbourne pub when the conversation turned philosophical. In keeping with the theme, Hill asked: “What does the future of humanity look like?” It was a deep subject for the casual setting, but Hill had been reading about the new gene-editing technology known as CRISPR and was curious about its scientific, social and ethical implications.
Hill had already created a YouTube channel, BrainCraft , to explore topics related to psychology and neuroscience, but wanted to delve a little deeper into the new DNA technology. Within a few months she had accessed funding to produce a long-form lm she called Mutant Menu, which premiered on BrainCraft.
“There was a lot of talk around CRISPR’s potential, but not on what was actually happening,” says Hill. Mutant Menu talks to a variety of scientists and ethicists about the recent breakthroughs in genetic- engineering technology. Interviewees include Jin-Soo Kim, a biochemist in Seoul who is trying to save the banana. He believes the humble fruit is on the verge of extinction because of fungal diseases. “Bananas are genetically identical so a single pathogen can potentially kill every banana on earth,” says Kim. Kim and his team are using genetic engineering to create a banana that is resistant to the fungus.
Food is not the only place where the technology is being used. Leading geneticist George Church is working with the technology in an effort to bring back extinct animals such as the woolly mammoth. This project involves introducing mammoth genes into the Asian elephant to create a hybrid embryo so they can return and help lock up greenhouse gasses.
Meanwhile, scientists at Harvard Medical School are using the gene editing technology to “humanise” organs harvested in pigs and needed for human organ donation. “Genetic engineering and CRISPR have the potential to save lives and cure disease, but it also comes with risk,” says Hill. “My goal with Mutant Menu was to explore all sides of the issue and let viewers come to their own conclusions about this technology.”
Perhaps the most controversial way genetic editing is being explored is in the genetic modification of humans. Some believe the bene ts could be huge and include breakthroughs such as curing genetic disease; others are concerned about unforeseen consequences. Bioethicist Rachel Ankeny, who helps people reach decisions by weighing up the risk of unanticipated consequences against potential benefits, says the presence of medical benefits makes a resolution easier. Biotech CEO Rachel Haurwitz, on the other hand, feels strongly that editing the human germ line is an inappropriate way to use the technology because mistakes could be propagated across the whole body. “We don’t know enough about whether that’s safe,” she says.