THE MUTANT PROJECT-a book review

At the same time, some of the more entrepreneurial see the potential for using genetic modification to selectively breed desirable and profitable human traits-high IQ, increased muscle mass, or designer skin color, and enhanced fertility, including choosing the gender of babies.

THE MUTANT PROJECT

Inside the global race to genetically modify humans

By Eben Kirksey

If this were the title of a fiction book, you might expect the main characters to be brilliant but misguided scientists, funded by biotech start-ups who see potential for massive profits by developing methods to manipulate human DNA. The applications of such technology for the treatment of genetic diseases, cancers, and viral infections could be worth billions of dollars.

At the same time, some of the more entrepreneurial see the potential for using genetic modification to selectively breed desirable and profitable human traits-high IQ, increased muscle mass, or designer skin color, and enhanced fertility, including choosing the gender of babies.

You would be right except The Mutant Project is not fiction; it is based on facts, meticulously researched by Eben Kirksey, Ph.D. In this book, Dr. Kirksey chronicles his travels around the world as he learned about genetic modification using CRISPR by interviewing multiple scientists and investors who were involved in the first genetically edited babies born in 2018.

The Mutant Timeline

One does not need a graduate degree in genetics to understand this book, although I am sure it would help. But here are some basic facts that introduce the book.

1818-Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, the world’s first science fiction book, about a young researcher fwho produces a creature with superhuman powers

1901-Hugo de Vries writes The Mutation Theory, about foundational ideas about genetic variation

1953- Watson and Crick are credited with discovering the DNA’s double helix structure

graphic depiction of DNA- the double helix

1978- Louise Brown is born, the world’s first “test-tube” baby

1987-CRISPR is discovered

a drawing representing CRISPR
CRISPR-Cas9 is a customizable tool that lets scientists cut and insert small pieces of DNA at precise areas along a DNA strand. This lets scientists study our genes in a specific, targeted way. Credit: Ernesto del Aguila III, National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH

2000-President Bill Clinton reveals preliminary findings from the Human Genome Project

2016-the first CRISPR clinical trial in the United States secures government approval

2016-The China National GeneBank opens, the goal is to collect DNA from every human on earth

CRISPR

CRISPR, “clustered interspaced short palindromic repeats” was discovered in bacteria in 1987, its purpose initially unknown. By 2012 scientists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier demonstrated how to modify human DNA with CRISPR. It is an enzyme that can “generate mutants by chopping up DNA.”

CRISPR/CAS9 systems allow scientists to make targeted changes to an organism's DNA
CRISPR/CAS9 systems allow scientists to make targeted changes to an organism’s DNA This image is excerpted from a U.S. GAO report: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-478SP

Even though Dr. Kirksey is reporting as a journalist, he makes it clear that he agrees with those who feel this technology must be approached cautiously, as there is a clear risk that “biotech companies may put profits ahead of patients.”

The chief protagonist of this saga is Dr. Jiankui He of China, the physician scientist responsible for modifying two embryos, creating the first edited babies in the world, twin girls born in China in October 2018. He believed he has assured his place in history by using CRISPR to make these embryos resistant to HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).

Such a technique could change the world, potentially making all humans resistant to this infectious disease which is deadly without treatment. How Dr. He went from “powerful scientific entrepreneur to pariah” within a few short years is both riveting and disappointing.

This story moves at a rapid pace as the author travelled around the world attending lectures and interviewing multiple people in varied locations; I suggest not laying the book aside once you start, as I found it easy to get lost. A background in basic biology is helpful but not necessary to enjoy this book, since the ethical and moral issues it raises go beyond the realm of science.

A nice feature of the book-it is dedicated to the twin girls, Lulu and Nana, who live in China with their parents and are reported to be healthy.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for a digital galley copy in exchange for my honest review.

other books by Dr. Kirksey

Freedom in Entangled Worlds

The Multispecies Salon

Emergent Ecologies

And if you enjoy video

Human Nature-documentary movie

Human Nature is a provocative exploration of CRISPR’s far-reaching implications, through the families it’s affecting, and the bioengineers who are testing its limits. How will this new power change our relationship with nature? What will it mean for human evolution? To answer these questions we must look back billions of years and peer into an uncertain future.

Unnatural Selection-documentary television series

From eradicating disease to selecting a child’s traits, gene editing gives humans the chance to hack biology. Meet the real people behind the science.

available on Netflix

exploring the HEART of health and genetics

I hope you will consider reading Dr. Kirksey’s book and watching some of the videos. The medical sciences are finding more and more uses for genetics, for example the mRNA vaccines developed to prevent COVID-19 infection. As Dr. Kirksey described in the book, there are significant ethical implications that bear watching.

I appreciate all of you who are following Watercress Words, and if you aren’t I invite you to join the wonderful people who are. You can meet some of them in the sidebar, where you can click on their image and visit their blogs. Use the form to get an email notification of new posts. Don’t worry, you won’t get anything else from me.

Dr. Aletha

7 influential people who are changing-and saving-lives

I think we all have the power to be influential, for good or bad. Notice who’s following you and consider what they’re learning -and imitating-from your actions and attitudes.

Every year TIME magazine publishes an issue devoted to the world’s 100 most influential people. When I read through the list, I find many familiar names and many that I have never heard of.

TIME calls them “a community of leaders whose energy and commitment we hope inspires others to spring into action as well.

Each nominee is described by someone who knows them well and is often also worthy of being called influential, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci .

Entertainment and sports

The list includes people you might call celebrities-singers, actors, musicians, entertainers, athletes- who I suppose are often influential although I don’t understand why.

As much as I love the arts and sports, I find it odd that they would be the most influential. Certainly their work is, in many cases. Some of these were Scarlett Johansson, Lil Nas X, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kate Winslet, Billie Eilish, and Tom Brady. Simone Biles made the list, I think rightfully so.

Government and politics

Many government officials made the list as you would suppose, after all they run the world, don’t they? So here we have Joe Manchin, Liz Cheney, Xi Jinping, and of course the President and Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

Others in the political realm include Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump. I’ll also include the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, aka Harry and Meghan, although I don’t understand their current position in the British Monarchy.

Science and Technology

So from among their choices my favorites and the subject of this post are those whose work involves science, public health, medical research, and especially the management of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve picked 7, so that is 7% of the total.

Of course people in other disciplines addressed the crisis too, so if you include them it would actually be more than 7%, possibly 10-50%. Check out the list in the September 27, 2021 issue of TIME and see what you think.

They are disrupters, fixers, doers, iconoclasts, problem solvers -people who in a year of crisis have leaped into the fray.

Edward Felsenthal, Editor-in-chief

Adi Utarini-public health researcher

The World Health Organization calls Dengue fever, caused by a mosquito-borne virus that infects almost 400 million people world wide, one of the greatest threats to world health,

Adi Utarini developed a technique to render these mosquitoes harmless by inoculating them with Wolbachia, a harmless bacteria that blocks mosquitoes from transmitting dengue with a bite.

“Utarini has survived dengue twice. However, dengue may not survive her”

Melinda French Gates
courtesy of CDC.GOV

Barney Graham-physician-scientist

Barney Graham has researched and designed vaccines for decades, by understanding how viruses and human cells interact. His work on viral proteins led to the development of many of the COVID-19 vaccines used now.

“A thought leader in vaccine design and pandemic preparedness, Dr. Graham has helped save millions of lives and altered the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Anthony Fauci
electron microscope image of a 2019-nCoV isolate
Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19, formerly known as 2019-nCoV. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-sections through the viral genome, seen as black dots. credit Hannah A Bullock; Azaibi Tamin, public domain

Lidia Morawska-physicist

Lidia Morawska recognized the importance of aerosol transmission in the spread of the COVID virus. She gathered the data and convinced scientists and public health authorities to change how we measure and lessen our risk of contracting the virus.

“Her advocacy helped change practices from schools to workplaces, making these environments safer for people around the world.”

Scott Gottlieb
Should I increase ventilation in a room to reduce spread of COVID-19?
reduce a

John Nkengasong -virologist

As founding director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong has helped save lives during the pandemic. His work led to improved testing, better provision of COVID-19 tools, especially vaccines, and a more transparent approach to sharing data by all African countries.

Nkengasong is a modern-day African hero. Expect to see him charting the course both in Africa and globally.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 Spike Protein

3D print of a spike protein of SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—in front of a 3D print of a SARS-CoV-2 virus particle. The spike protein (foreground) enables the virus to enter and infect human cells. On the virus model, the virus surface (blue) is covered with spike proteins (red) that enable the virus to enter and infect human cells.
 
3dprint.nih.gov/
 
Credit: NIH

Katalin Kariko-biochemist

Katalin Kariko, a senior VP, at BioNTech, began studying RNA when no one else considered it promising. But her research led to the idea of using mRNA (messenger RNA) in vaccines, and their use in developing the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. This technology has potential application for other vaccines as well as treating autoimmune disorders.

“I admire her dogged pursuit of an idea she was passionate about, and her willingness to collaborate with others.She inspires us with her creativity, persistence, and commitment.”

Jennifer Doudna
How mRNA Vaccines Work?CDC

Rochelle Walensky-clinician-investigator

During her time at Harvard University, Rochelle Walensky made numerous important research contributions to controlling HIV infection. As director of the CDC she again confronts another major public health challenge , COVID-19, leading in its management and addressing health equity and other serious public health issues.

“Dr. Walensky’s calm courage and proven track record of respecting science are restoring the CDC’s prominence in leading us through this pandemic.”

Julie Geberding
CDC is committed to achieving health equity

Dolly Parton- living legend

Although I question why celebrities are on the list, for Dolly Parton I make an exception, because I don’t consider her a celebrity. I think of her as champion of the underdog, being somewhat of an underdog herself. From humble beginnings in rural Tennessee in a large, poor but loving family she used her talent and hard work to achieve a remarkable career in music, movies, and business.

Imagination Library with Dolly Parton
AT DOLLY PARTON’S STAMPEDE, BRANSON, MISSOURI (PHOTO BY DR ALETHA)

She established the Imagination Library to provide free books to millions of children. Last year she donated $1 million to help fund the develop the COVID-19 vaccine. And she publicly received a “shot in her arm” to encourage others to be vaccinated.

Have you ever met anyone who doesn’t love Dolly Parton? I never have. She’s my role model because of her steadfast morals and values.”

Miley Cyrus
update December 4, 2021

This year People magazine named Dolly Parton one of its People of the Year, calling her “the Queen of Country”, an American icon, one of the most prolific songwriters of our time.” She says,

I ask God every day to let Him shine through me. He’s given me that gift to be able to talk to them(her fans) , and I’m very careful with it. And people don’t really come to see me be me-they come to see me be them, the parts of me they can relate to.

People magazine, December 13, 2021

We all have an opportunity to help create a better world..we can choose to be among those who pick up the phone and run toward the struggle.

Edward Felsenthal

exploring the HEART of health

So what do you think about these choices or others on the list from TIME? Are there other people you would have included? I think we all have the power to be influential, for good or bad. Notice who’s following you and consider what they’re learning -and imitating-from your actions and attitudes.

I appreciate all of you who are following Watercress Words, and if you aren’t I invite you to join the wonderful people who are. You can meet some of them in the sidebar, where you can click on their image and visit their blogs. Use the form to get an email notification of new posts. Don’t worry, you won’t get anything else from me.

drawing of a notebook, earbuds, coffee, pens

Dr Aletha

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