Too many Pandora boxes

by Ralf Stutzki, October 6, 2017

You know what? Scientific paradigmatic breakthroughs of overwhelming magnitude capable of becoming major milestones which herald the golden age of natural sciences and push mankind on the cusp of a new era in human history simply do not impress me anymore. Actually, they can be lucky if I even notice them. There are just too many out there these days and too little time to fall down in adoration before them (let alone to understand them); which primarily is owed to their ever-getting shorter date of expiry. Take this one for example: As I am writing this “corner” the Nature article „Correction of a pathogenic gene mutation in human embryos“1 is already 8 weeks old. In the age of CRISPR this is an eternity. In other words: writing about a scientific breakthrough 2 months after its official announcement nowadays can at best be considered a history of science-elaboration. Granted – one day after its publication the media covered the fact that “we” now have genetic scissors and are capable of repairing embryos that “we” feel need to be repaired. But coverage usually was about as extensive as a #POTUS tweet makes sense these days. Just a few mentions here and there – using terms such as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘scissors’ – then it was back to sports and weather.

What happened to the good ol’ times of both public outrage and awe when e.g. a cloned sheep called Dolly was more famous than the anchorman who announced her? When thousands of creationists around the world believed that the end of the world had come, echoed by millions of gourmets who feared that a future with a roasted lamb clone was not worth living? Even 20 years after its fabrication at the Roslin Institute in 1996, “Dolly the sheep”, The Herald titles, “still remains a source of controversy.”2

Why in the world is a technology that (not only) can fix pathogenic gene mutations in human embryos with the help of genetic scissors not nearly as prominent in today’s public discourse? After all, CRSIPR in the short time it has been around has become a model for comme il faut science communication, but to no avail! Rarely has there been a comparable case in the recent past where a newly developed scientific technology was translated into a terminology which can be understood by almost anyone: “scissors”; “repair”; “edit”; “fix”, “bad and good”, “sick and healthy”, “boy or girl”, “blond or brunette”, “smart or intellectually challenged”…  How picturesque this language is indeed! Had Romeo and Juliet lived in our days their famous Verona balcony conversations might have taken completely different turns:

But soft, what light through yonder test tube breaks?
It is the engineering of biology and the genetic scissor is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and repair the envious mutation,
Who is in an embryo sick and pale with grief*
(*almost Shakespeare; Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2, Capulet’s Garden)

With today’s scientific knowhow even Apollo could have added a little practical touch to his most famous maxim carved into the temple of Delphi: “Know and edit thyself.”

Well – maybe not. Come to think of it, in order for a text to become truly eternal it must abstain.

As I am writing this, researchers are “finding ever more powerful ways” to use CRISPR (TIME Magazine).3 A team of scientists has used the genome scissor to stop a key gene from producing OCT4, which is not to be mistaken with the official starting date of Indian summer in New England but a protein, which embryos need to form a decent blastocyst. Naturally the team of scientists showed themselves “surprised” about their findings, for the research was a “first time” breakthrough which will “help us” and will open “new fields of opportunity”.4 The public non-reaction to these ever more powerful findings speaks for itself.

Perhaps our generation is doomed to open too many Pandora Boxes too fast. But what good is it after all if we set a pace without being able to keep up with it? The consequence can at best be that many of “us” abstain from getting involved.

Perhaps this is the main reason why all those paradigmatic breakthroughs of overwhelming magnitude capable of becoming major milestones which herald the golden age of natural sciences and push mankind on the cusp of a new era in human history - simply don’t impress me anymore.

Ralf Stutzki


[1] Nature 548, 413–419 (24 August 2017) doi:10.1038/nature23305




Ralf Stutzki, Head Ethics