Forbidden Research liveblog: Messing with Nature: Genetics and Climate

Live blog by Sam Klein, Natalie, and myself.


How do you innovate in a field of massive potential and risk? When it comes to genetically engineering living things, most of the technology being developed happens behind closed doors. How do we change the perception of science and genetic engineering with an emphasis on openness for the sake of safety, ethics, and cautionary vigilance but continue to move forward? Who should be responsible for making “god-like” decisions that will ultimately affect our entire future as a society? Megan Palmer, Senior Research Scholar, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University was our moderator.

Developing the field of synthetic biology. Policy and practices around the safety, security, ethics, governance around engineering biology. Does getting better at doing this actually increase our health, prosperity, etc? Microscopic organisms are already trying to kill us all the time. Are unintentional ramifications or malicious use open us up to unacceptable risks? Can we make this information open to the wide public? We’re both destroying and saving the world all at the same time.

There’s a First Robotics competition. We have genetically engineered machine competition. What will undergrads make? Don’t compete them against each other, but instead “what is the most useful thing we can do with this tech?” Give incentives and rewards to be thinking about these questions the whole way. Learn the US had a destructive biological warfare program. Since the 70s we don’t do that, that they have to uphold that. Limit between what is constructive and destructive. Dual use research concerns, like work on pathogens. When we develop the data about balancing things, the jury is still out. Who decides in these cases of uncertainty?

Community consent, the dangers and benefits of bioengineering

Kevin Esvelt, Director of the Sculpting Evolution Research Group, MIT Media Lab
When we engineer life, what does that say to other people? What are the repercussions to the living systems we depend upon? We tamper with them at our peril. When we alter one organism, we tamper with something nature has optimized to thrive in the wild. So we end those threads when we mess with individual organisms (or we upset the rest of the ecosystem). Gene Drive Inheritance makes dominant genes (so spread through the wild). Block out all mosquitoes that carry malaria. Make crops that are not tasty to invasive species ending blights. What if someone makes a mistake? Public backlash and harm to the planet, to the population, to the field, to research. Working to make all work in the open. If we have the possibility of messing everything up, everyone should be able to see what we’re doing. We’re not always careful, there are laboratory accidents. Right now it’s hard to find other pieces of the puzzle, hard to know if your efforts are wasted if someone else is already doing it. By working in the open we are more effective AND more ethical.

Preventing mice at Martha’s Vineyard from getting infected with Lyme disease, which means no ticks would have it, which means kids don’t have it. Working with the potential community before we even start the research. We want independent monitoring set up by you to be sure everything goes well. End points for the project unless you say it’s ok to proceed. [and of the 100 people who came to this meeting, every one supported moving forward]. So there is a way of moving forward in cases like this, but trust is not a given. It must be earned each and every time.

Bringing back from extinction, or revitalizing endangered species?

Ryan Phelan, Executive Director and Co-founder, Revive & Restore, The Long Now Foundation

No one believed we could completely wipe out a species. But now it’s ingrained that extinction is forever. Is there recoverable DNA? Would that change the game? Woolly Mammoth in a healthy ecosystem someday. It’s a long project. But it’s super taboo for academics and funders. But they’re happy about the other side (helping endangered species come back). Secure gov sponsorships, fish and wildlife, etc.

It will take away from teh concept that “Extinction is Forever” as a rallying cry which has helped us be motivated as citizens. But if we’re pioneering this, like from the Passenger Pigeon we could recreate that ecosystem. Taking money away from conservation (if it’s a 0-sum game). We want to bring more money in. We may release a problem for future generations. We’ve made it look easy so people will take money off of protection. Frozen Zoo! Was considered rouge for taking in and saving endangered species DNA. But we’re now taking cells out to increase genetic variation. Now the Frozen Zoo is prescient.

The context of genetic engineering

George Church, Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School
It may be forbidden to do some research on others, but it seems moral to experiment on yourself, your own body. I know a number of people, now, doing gene therapy on themselves, way in advance of animal trials.

There are a number of trials currently underway. This ability to self modify is quite prominent. It’s not all about genes. Many things which are heritable. We have four generations of phones in my family. We talk about genes as irreversible. the other things we inherit are hard to reverse like our culture and our technology. What we’re worried about is that something we do could be very attractive in the short term which has repercussion in the longer term. We worry about changing our environments in unintended ways. We have twice what we thought was the carrying capacity of the globe, and half of what we will end up with.
This has been a core part of our work in our lab: Making open

  1. How people are involved in medical research so they have access to their own data.
  2. Rise of synthetic biology – we’re on an exponential curve. I Argued for [open] surveillance of the uses of synthetic biology, since things are changing so rapidly, so we’re aware of what is happening

We don’t just need a reaction to things we think are yucky (germline is more acceptable than abortion to some folk). We need to think a bit out of the box rather than immediate rejection. Altering our minds, electrodes implanted in our brains for epilepsy and depression. Will become more and more biological. This can happen much faster than the germline. This is going to be a much faster revolution.

Genetic question and Answer

how do you reconcile? advisors?
* openness to being advised. listening carefully as well as teaching. hear what folk are up to, worried about. Make a special effort to make our information public (ignoring possible competitors)
* what if Martha’s Vineyard hadn’t been 100%? Would have been up to the community to decide percentage for consensus? He wanted at least one skeptic, as those are the folk who actively check you for the things that will destroy the project or allow it to cause lots of issues.
* have you decided to move forward outside of consensus? Revive and Restore adapted to public response asking for shorter term gains. We don’t need consensus to do science, but we do need public input.
Not all of our community takes these precautions. How do you resolve your differences with them?
* We decided to tell everyone BEFORE we did the thing, which is just not done in science. You usually prove it before you tell people. The history of science is that of closed doors. We can get away with being open, but what about our students? Us pushing them to being open means our students might get scooped, and that ruins their career.
We publish about the study and then ask for public comments. Sometimes we don’t get any, and somtimes they’re not good.
* You can’t just publish a lab notebook and expect others to know what to do with that. We write stories around it.
* Fruitflies – a group was going to do self-inserting CRISPR, going to publish it as a method for others to use. not thinking about ramifications across everything else. We can’t think about all the ramifications on our own.
We claim to be democratizing things, but are we actually distributing everything?
* sequencing that is hand-held. Wearable sequencing. Surveillance of micro-organisms. DIY Bio should be the ultimate in citizen science. Outreach through films and congress and etc.
Informed consent can’t be given for algorithmic decision making. What are the folk in Martha’s Vineyard consenting to? [side note from Willow to check out the Framework for Consent Policies]* Ask people to take an exam about if they understand what they’re consenting to.
* People are consenting to trying it out right now, not anything else.
As we talk about ideal genetics, who gets to decide about the ideal human? What we currently call disability, what gets expressed and not expressed? What happens to the forms that are or aren’t expressed?
* More discussion around how ti INCREASE (not decrease) diversity. There’s no ideal put forth. The lesson we learn time and again is that diversity is an extremely good thing. Culture, color, neural, bio. We’re selecting for female when we select. We’re selecting away from painful diseases.
Is any attention being given to LACK of habitat for these revitalized organisms?
* Yes. We’ve helped shape de-extinction guidelines. one main one is where they would flourish. Others include that the purpose is encouraging the flourishing the species in its natural habitat, not as a zoo specimen. And that the original cause of the extinction (hunting, pollution, etc) has been removed. increasingly we have new challenges like diseases, invasive species taking down bottleneck.
A CRISPR product has been introduced (a mushroom). There was no policy or regulation around it.
* Let’s not demonize a specific tech, but know what we do and don’t want from it.

Genetic closing

What’s the one rule you love to break, or what is one forbidden thing you’re thinking about?
* We break the rule of being silent scientists. Some colleagues say it’s not their responsibility to point things out (esp related to their funding). I don’t feel edgy stating that we’re not like that.
* Do we have a chance to think beyond what we’re doing right now?
* people in our field think that we “shouldn’t tell the muggles.” I think we should. Evolution is amoral, nature is amoral. Evolution hasn’t optimized for flourishing and wellbeing, should we be doing that? Is that moral?


Moderated by Stewart Brand, Editor, Whole Earth Catalog and Founder, Long Now Foundation; with panelists David Keith (Professor of Applied Physics, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School) and Gernot Wagner (Research Associate at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Co-author, Climate Shock).
Geoengineering, or using technological interventions to address climate change, is much on the minds of scientists, policy makers and citizen groups. As our ability to “mess” with nature evolves from science fiction to reality, we are faced with serious questions about whether the possibility of success is worth the massive potential risks. Technologies for reflecting solar radiation back into space are being researched, but what will happen if we deploy them? Who should decide? Who will?

If anything could go wrong with something new, don’t do it. Moral hazard is “lack of incentive to guard against risk when one is protected against its consequences.” Treating the symptoms of climate change, giving people the ability to ignore the causes. “A junkie figuring out new ways to steal from their children.” The Whole Earth Discipline.
Solar geoengineering rests on the simple idea that it’s possible to make the whole earth a little more reflective. Reduces the risks of carbon. It’s relatively easy and it’s relatively cheap. It could also diminish the problems we care about most. We could bring temperatures back to pre industrial. That’s not doubted. But does it deal with extreme events like big storms, heatwaves, rising sea levels? We have no real research programs as we don’t want to think about it. But now it’s been modeled etc. On a region by region basis if used appropriately reduce all these risks, increase productivity of crops worldwide. How do we control and learn more?

Why don’t we just stop emitting carbon dioxide? no cars, planes, powerlines. Would it get warmer or colder? Warmer, because we have a delayed feedback loop. Might be up to a century. Solar geoengineering is different. We still have to get emissions to zero. It partially, imperfectly deals with the CO2 we’ve emitted in history. Lots of questions about tying ourselves to the mast, about messing with history, etc. We’re already messing with nature, it’s going to keep being messed with. We might be doing less than if we don’t do solar geoengineering.

If a person comes in who needs Lipator, they also need to diet and exercise. As an economist, you would reduce your 30 minutes of exercise by 30 seconds. But people actually do 90 and keep doing 90. Those who do none might say “holy shit I need a pill to keep me alive? Maybe I should also take the stairs more often.” Because people aren’t rational. So if we’re talking about acting on solar geoengineering as a response to climate change, are people more or likely to vote for things that reduce emissions?

We have next to no support in doing this. This research has been suggested since 1982. Field experiments might make sense as a study 2 years ago. People don’t argue back, but somehow we just can’t. There are now formal Chinese programs, EU programs. US programs are done by diverting funds or philanthropic. And this is a sort of political cowardice. Almost all climate models. Some small experiments to understand the key processes to understand the risks and efficacy. All modeling or social sciences (there might be more here and governance than science). We talk more about whether or not its ok to talk about than talking about it.

Want to deliver how to do this in a technical sense, what failure modes would look like, how to monitor for failure, governance structures. Those are our goals within the decade. Sulfuric acid because we know volcanoes do it. Limestone might slightly restore the ozone layer. We know what nature does, how long it lasts, what sort of cooling it does. Sulfate damages the ozone layer. All of this is talk until we get to experiment. Looking at key chemistry interactions which we don’t know yet. Release small amounts of various materials we think would work, see how it affects things around it. We’re not saying it should be done, we’re saying we need to develop the knowledge of how to do it so we can make informed discussions.

We can do better than sulfates for solar geoeng: Calcium carbonate; diamond dust [factory production (vapor deposition) is cheap]. System engineering when we don’t fully understand it, is that responsible? We’re committed to it. We’re already doing it. How do we couple human governance with planetary management? How intelligently are we doing to do this? We’re already altering the environment and our planet.

The people most affected by climate change are those in tropical countries who feel the heat the most. The moral pressure to protect those most affected is huge.

Challenge with cutting CO2 emissions: You don’t feel the effects of your own actions – CO2 emissions. The reason we aren’t cutting emissions, unlike progress with pollution cutting, is because the generation of people who will be cutting CO2 emissions aren’t the ones who will benefit from decrease. Simple thing is just to keep putting CO2 in the air. Mitigation takes a long time to get it to happen, slow response time. You’re talking about a quick intervention. Solar geoengineering happens within a political cycle.

Urge us not to assume that the natural answer is that the possbility of solar geoengineering. We need to do the best we can to tip the balance of the planet into our survivability. We’re up to 8 or 10 professors, getting funders to pay attention to us. Prominent environmental donors are coming up, hoping to tap in there. Harvard and China.

For solar geoeng, it’s so cheap that any country could just do it…. [or some individuals]Some companies, new startups, are working on capturing CO2 in the air. That’s less controversial: make low-carbon fuels for power. There is a competitor in Switzerland called Climeworks AG.

CO2 removal is complicated. Solar power is getting cheaper. Can use that to produce hydrogen, combine with sequestered Carbon, make fuel. Carbon in and out of the biosphere, it’s like having a pile of flamable stuff in Central Valley California. The cycle is hours (foreset fire) to decades (ecosystem life cycle). To put carbon in the ocean doesn’t work.

Recent research showing some hurricanes are being suppressed due to aerosol. Ice sheets are deeper, different.
Clearing up pollution in China — is that going to warm things up? Should we stop cleaning up the air? No! Europe in the 70s started cleaning up because acid rain etc. For Europe, decreasing tropospheric aerosol pollution has likely incrased temps in the Artic by half a degree celcius. Should we stop killing people? But then stratospheric injection. 50*26 for sulpher we put in the lower atmosphere, [THERE ARE NUMBERS I DON’T KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON — willow]

We’re talking about doing some things on islands to control for impact. What about consent when it’s the whole globe?
Sulfur doesn’t have sex. if you do a tiny experiment in the stratosphere, and you quit doing it, you’re back where you started. There’s some small risk bio would run amok. Except for a moral hazard.
But how we make a global decision like this is unprecedented. How do you handle global consensus? There is no global government. For oceans, there’s teh World Ocean Commission. 15 or so wise men or women, they don’t have any power, it’s a talking shop but it’s a place to give guidance. Step one is to take the decision away from teh scientists. They can provde the technology but it’s literally everyone else who needs to be there for when to turn the knob. We’re not tryking to deploy this, we’re trying to research it. Are the benefits and costs balanced? Vaccinations were 1000 to 1.

Will we end up with citizen science/disobedience of people doing small versions of this?

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