Biotechnology—the use of biological processes for industrial and other purposes, especially through genetic manipulation of microorganisms—is a field experiencing massive growth worldwide. For many decades, advances in biology have been made in large academic or corporate institutions, with entry to the field restricted by knowledge and financial barriers. Now, through information sharing and new means of accessing lab space and equipment, a whole new community of amateur scientists are entering the molecular biology space. The emergence of this growing do-it-yourself “biohacker” community raises ethical questions of what work should be allowed to proceed.
In this episode of Big Tech, co-hosts David Skok and Taylor Owen speak with Ellen Jorgensen, a molecular biologist and chief scientific officer at Aanika Biosciences. She is an advocate for democratizing biotechnology by enabling more individuals to have access to lab space and equipment.
Jurisdictions are taking different approaches to biotechnology, with some, such as the European Union and Africa, being more restrictive than others, such as China. What makes the fragmentation of governance surrounding genetic modification different from fragmentation in internet or tech governance is that biotechnology’s raw material is a global interconnected web of life. A biological modification can have unintended, even disastrous, impacts worldwide. For example, says Jorgensen, “What I’m concerned with is things like gene drives, which is a variety of CRISPR gene editing that’s self-perpetuating.… So, 100 per cent of the offspring, where one of the parents has this gene drive, all have the gene drive. So, it can spread through a population, particularly one with a short lifespan, like mosquitoes, within a very short period of time. And here, for the first time, we have the ability to potentially wipe out a species.”
As Jorgensen points out, with such high stakes, we have an “inherent motivation to regulate.” Working together on a global set of standards, and setting aside their own ethical or moral understandings to find a solution that works for everyone, will present a challenge for nations.