Powerful new genetic tools allow scientists to alter the DNA of any organism—with tests on human embryos already underway. Even more ambitious, synthetic biologists on the verge of creating the genetic material for a living organism from scratch are setting their long-term sites on fashioning a fully synthetic human genome. With bold promises of disease resistance and controlling human evolution, this explosive progress has ignited ethical debate. As we rewrite our code of life, how will we revise the code we live by? Join a panel of distinguished scientists and bioethicists wrestling with the moral challenges of altering the human genome.
The Big Ideas Series is supported in part by the John Templeton Foundation.
Amy Harmon covers the social implications of science and technology for The New York Times. She has won two Pulitzer Prizes, one in 2008 for her series, “The DNA Age,” the other as part of a team in 2001. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in science writing in 2013. Her articles on genetically engineered crops were awarded prizes from the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers in 2014. In 2012, she won the Casey Medal for excellence in reporting on children and families for an article about a young man with autism coming of age. She received the National Academies of Science award for print journalism in 2011. Harmon has also written of her adventures on a treadmill-desk and the search for wildness on a family vacation in Costa Rica. Her journalism career began at her college newspaper, The Michigan Daily.
George Church is professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and director of PersonalGenomes.org, providing the world’s only open-access information on human Genomic, Environmental, and Trait data (GET). His 1984 Harvard Ph.D. included the first methods for direct genome sequencing, molecular multiplexing, and barcoding. These lead to the first commercial genome sequence (pathogen, Helicobacter pylori) in 1994. His innovations in “next generation” genome sequencing & synthesis and cell/tissue engineering resulted in 12 companies spanning fields including medical genomics (Knome, Alacris, AbVitro, GoodStart, Pathogenica) and synthetic biology (LS9, Joule, Gen9, Warp Drive) as well as new privacy, biosafety, and biosecurity policies. He is director of the NIH Center for Excellence in Genomic Science. His honors include election to NAS and NAE, and Franklin Bower laureate for achievement in science.
Drew Endy is an assistant professor of Bioengineering at Stanford. His Stanford research team develops genetically encoded computers and redesigns genomes. Endy co-founded the BioBricks Foundation as a public-benefit charity supporting free-to-use standards and technology that enable the engineering of biology (BioBricks.org). Endy joined the Stanford faculty in late 2008, having previously studied with and served on the Biological Engineering faculty at MIT. He is also the founding director of the public benefit BIOFAB facility in Emeryville, CA. Endy is a member of the Committee on Science, Technology, and Law at the U.S. National Academies and has been nominated to serve on the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. Endy recently gave testimony and provided opening remarks regarding synthetic biology before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the President’s Commission on Bioethics, respectively. He earned a BS and MS in Civil and Environmental Engineering, respectively, from Lehigh University and a PhD in Biochemical Engineering from Dartmouth College.
Gregory E. Kaebnick is a scholar at The Hastings Center and editor of the Hastings Center Report. He is the author of the 2014 book, Humans in Nature: The World as We Find It and the World as We Create It, he has testified before Congress on ethical issues concerning the use of new genetic technologies, and he served on a National Research Council and National Academy of Sciences committee, Gene Drive Research in Non-Human Organisms: Recommendations for Responsible Conduct. He is the principal investigator of a project on the role of values in impact assessment of emerging technologies and a co-investigator of a project on the potential social and ethical implications of using gene editing technologies on human germline cells. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Minnesota.
S. Matthew Liao is a philosopher interested in a wide range of issues including ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, moral psychology, and bioethics. He is director and associate professor of the Center for Bioethics, and affiliated professor in the Department of Philosophy at New York University. He is the author or editor of The Right to Be Loved (Oxford University Press, 2015); Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights (Oxford University Press, 2015); and Moral Brains: The Neuroscience of Morality (Oxford University Press, 2016). He has given a TED talk in New York, a TEDx talk at CERN in Geneva, and has been featured in the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, the BBC, Harper’s Magazine, Sydney Morning Herald, Scientific American, and other media outlets. He is the Editor-in-Chief for the Journal of Moral Philosophy, a peer-reviewed international journal of moral, political, and legal philosophy.