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Biotechnology is creating ethical worries—and we’ve been here before

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Biotechnology is creating ethical worries—and we’ve been here before

Think about it —

A new book explores 3 capabilities that are here now, whether we’re ready or not.


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Matthew Cobb is a zoologist and author whose background is in insect genetics and the history of science. Over the past decade or so, as CRISPR was discovered and applied to genetic remodeling, he started to get concerned—afraid, actually—about three potential applications of the technology. He’s in good company: Jennifer Doudna, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 for discovering and harnessing CRISPR, is afraid of the same things. So he decided to delve into these topics, and As Gods: A Moral History of the Genetic Age is the result.

Summing up fears

The first of his worries is the notion of introducing heritable mutations into the human genome. He Jianqui did this to three human female embryos in China in 2018, so the three girls with the engineered mutations that they will pass on to their kids (if they’re allowed to have any) are about four now. Their identities are classified for their protection, but presumably their health is being monitored, and the poor girls have probably already been poked and prodded incessantly by every type of medical specialist there is.

The second is the use of gene drives. These allow a gene to copy itself from one chromosome in a pair to the other so it will be passed on to almost all offspring. If that gene causes infertility, the gene drive spells the extinction of the population that carries it. Gene drives have been proposed as a way to eradicate malaria-bearing mosquitoes, and they have been tested in the lab, but the technology has not been deployed in the wild yet.

Although eliminating malaria seems like an unalloyed good, no one is really sure what would happen to an ecosystem if we get rid of all of the malaria-bearing mosquitoes. (Of course, humans have eliminated or at least severely depleted entire species before—passenger pigeons, bison, eastern elk, wolves—sometimes even on purpose but never with the awareness of the Interconnectedness of All Things that we have now.) Another barrier comes from the fact that deploying this technology hinges on informed consent by the local population, which is difficult when some local languages don’t have a word for “gene.”

The third concern is focused on gain-of-function studies that create more transmissible or pathogenic viruses in a laboratory. These studies are purportedly done to get a better understanding of what makes viruses more dangerous, so in an ideal world, we could prepare for the eventuality of one occurring naturally. National Institutes of Health-funded gain-of-function studies done in 2011 made the very lethal H5N1 strain of flu more transmissible, leading to a self-imposed research moratorium that ended with more stringent regulations (in some countries). These types of studies obviously have the potential to create bioweapons, and even without nefarious intent, leaks are not impossible. (It is not likely that work of this sort caused the COVID-19 pandemic; evidence suggests that it jumped to humans from wildlife.)

The title of the resulting book is lifted from Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog,” in which he wrote: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Alas, not all gods are magnanimous. Or even competent, much less good at it.

Calling a timeout

As a historian of science, Cobb spends much of the book putting his fears in context. One way he does this is by considering how society dealt with the scary, potentially dangerous, and far-reaching advances in genetic manipulation that occurred in the latter half of the 20th century, and then comparing that to how society dealt with the scary, potentially dangerous, and far-reaching advances in nuclear physics that occurred in the former half.

He uses the change in the origin story in the X-Men comics to trace how public fears about science shifted from the atom to the gene. In the 1960s, the X-Men gained their mutations and accompanying powers through radiation exposure; by the 1980s, they were the products of genetic engineering experiments by the long-ago alien Celestials. (Check out the “Our Opinions Are Correct” podcast episode on the illusion of change if you’re curious as to why and how fans tolerated this retrofitted backstory.)

The Asilomar conference, held in California in February 1975, is generally held up as a paradigm of self-regulation. At the time, scientists were in the process of establishing recombinant DNA technology—the ability to move genes between organisms and to express any given gene essentially at will in bacteria. It is astonishing that, in the middle of these developments, they decided to pause and debate if and how they should proceed. (This shuffling of genes among species also happens in nature, but they didn’t know that yet.) Cobb writes that “no group of scientists, apart from geneticists, has ever voluntarily paused their work because they feared the consequences of what they might discover.”

But the Asilomar conference didn’t happen because geneticists are more moral than other scientists, Cobb maintains; they were just responding to the fears prevalent at their time. Many of the young researchers who advanced genetic engineering techniques came of age scientifically in the late 1960s, when they were at university protests against the Vietnam War. Between Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Agent Orange, physicists and then chemists watched with horror as the military-industrial complex turned their research into mass death and turned the public against the enterprise of science. These newly minted molecular biologists wanted to ensure that the same thing didn’t happen to them, Cobb argues.

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Ashley is a professional writer and editor with a strong background in tech and pop culture. She has written for high traffic websites such as Polygon, Kotaku, StarWars.com, and Nerdist. In her off time, she enjoys playing video games, reading science fiction novels, and hanging out with her rescue greyhound.

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Tesla finally delivers its first production Semi

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Tesla finally delivers its first production Semi

Five years after CEO Elon Musk officially unveiled his Semi, Tesla’s electrified tractor trailer, the company delivered its first official production vehicle to Pepsi on Thursday during its “Semi Delivery Event” held at Tesla’s Nevada Gigafactory. The beverage maker has ordered 100 of the vehicles in total.

First shown off in 2017, the Tesla Semi originally was set to retail for $150,000 and $180,000 for the 300- and 500-mile versions, respectively. Those prices are significantly higher than the $60k a standard diesel cab runs but Tesla estimates that its vehicles can operate 20 percent more efficiently (2kWh per mile, Musk revealed Thursday), and save up to $250,000 over the million-mile life of the Semi.

Each rig is “designed like a bullet,” Musk said at the vehicle’s unveiling, and would come equipped with a massive 1MW battery pack. This reportedly offers a 20-second 0-60, which is impressive given that these vehicles are towing up to 80,000 pounds at a time, and a spent-to-80 percent charge time of just 30 minutes. The Semis are also outfitted with Enhanced Autopilot capabilities, as well as jackknife-mitigation systems, blind-spot sensors and data-logging for fleet management.

As reservations opened in 2017, Musk said at the time, deliveries would begin two short years later, in 2019. By April 2020, Tesla had officially pushed that delivery date back to 2021, citing production delays and supply chain issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, just two months after that, in May of 2020, Musk sent a company-wide email reading, “It’s time to go all out and bring the Tesla Semi to volume production. It’s been in limited production so far, which has allowed us to improve many aspects of the design,” as seen by CNBC. In the same email he confirmed that production would take place in Tesla’s Nevada Gigafactory.

Cut to July, 2021, and the new delivery date has been pushed again, this time to 2022, citing both the ongoing global processor shortage and its own pandemic-limited battery production capability for the new 4680 style cells as contributing factors.

“We believe we remain on track to build our first Model Y vehicles in Berlin and Austin in 2021,” Musk said during the company’s Q2, 2021 investor call. “The pace of the respective production ramps will be influenced by the successful introduction of many new product and manufacturing technologies, ongoing supply-chain-related challenges and regional permitting.”

“To better focus on these factories, and due to the limited availability of battery cells and global supply chain challenges, we have shifted the launch of the Semi truck program to 2022,” he continued. Beginning in May of this year, Tesla started actively taking reservations again for a $20,000 deposit. “And first deliveries are now,” Musk said on Thursday before welcoming Kirk Tanner, CEO PepsiCo Beverages North America, and Steven Williams, CEO PepsiCo Foods North America, on stage for high fives and handshakes.

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