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.

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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, “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:

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.

Dr. Aletha

Understanding COVID-19 vaccines in 25 minutes

Learn how vaccines are made and how they work. Review the concept of herd immunity and why it’s so important. Recognize the reasons behind vaccine hesitancy and why it matters and may enable the spread of disease.

Recently I started listening to podcasts from AXIOS, an online news source, and have especially enjoyed their coverage of science in general and specifically the COVID-19 pandemic.

They produced 5 short videos explaining the coronavirus vaccine that I found informative and want to share with you . Each is less than 5 minutes so in about 25 minutes you will learn much about the vaccine and hopefully be more confident in your decision to get vaccinated yourself, as I and my husband have been.

Here’s the intro from AXIOS and a link to the page where you can access all 5 videos. Below I have given you an outline so you know a little of what is in each episode, but I do recommend you listen to all of them in order. They are even appropriate for kids.

(The cover photo is a scanning electron microscope image of SARS-CoV-2 (orange)—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells (green) cultured in the lab. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases-Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIH)

This post was Featured at BLOGGER’S PIT STOP

Vaccines: A short course from Axios

Vaccines have been used for centuries to fight disease but hesitancy and disinformation about them are spreading, jeopardizing the global fight against measles, COVID-19 and other diseases.

Axios’ science and health journalists will help you understand vaccines — how they work, how they’re tested and distributed, and where vaccine technology is headed.

illustration showing the coronavirus which causes COVID-19
This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. In this view, the protein particles E, S, and M, also located on the outer surface of the particle, have all been labeled as well. A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS, public domain

1. Vaccine basics

Learn how vaccines are made and how they work. Understand the immune system-T cells and antibodies.

Review the concept of herd immunity and why it’s so important.

These patients’ samples were to be tested for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) serologic test. CDC/ James Gathany, PUBLIC DOMAIN

2. Study and testing of vaccines

Find out why the research and development of vaccines costs $100 of millions. See the 3 phases of the process and why this one progressed faster than ever before.

President Joe Biden visited NIH on February 11, 2020, where he met with leading researchers at the Vaccine Research Center to learn more about the groundbreaking fundamental research that enabled the development of the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines.Credit: NIH/Chiachi Chang; PUBLIC DOMAIN

3. Distribution of vaccines

Understand why vaccine distribution differs from other drugs-including the manufacturing, selling, buying, and transporting.

In this 2020 photograph, captured inside a clinical setting, a health care provider places a bandage on the injection site of a patient, who just received an influenza vaccine. The best way to prevent seasonal flu is to get vaccinated every year. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone 6-months of age and older get a flu vaccine every season. CDC/ Robert Denty, public domain

4. Misinformation about vaccines

Recognize the reasons behind vaccine hesitancy and why it matters and may enable the spread of disease.

5. Next generation vaccines

Explore how scientists are using the power of genetics to create new and better vaccines. Appreciate why vaccines can change our approach to disease prevention.

DNA Double Helix

Credit: National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health. Please link to when possible. PUBLIC DOMAIN

Exploring the HEART of ending the COVID-19 pandemic

Dr. Aletha inspecting her arm after a COVID-19 shot
Three days after my first vaccination the soreness in my arm was almost gone, and I had no redness or swelling. After the second shot, minimal soreness. No other side effects to report. I feel fortunate.
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