'A new age of biology based on genetic technologies?' Venki Ramakrishnan at the AAAS conference

18 February 2017

If advances in genetic technologies have put us on the verge of a new age of biology, we need to go into it with our eyes open, according to Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society.  

Speaking at the AAAS conference in Boston, Ramakrishnan highlighted the potential of genetic technologies for use in humans, animals and plants saying “We face global problems – hunger, disease and environmental threats do not respect borders.  So we should seek to address those global problems on a global stage. That means working together to ensure that the benefits of new technologies – and I personally believe that those benefits can be great – are as widely spread as possible.”

He added, “When considering what we can do with technology we also need to consider what we should do.”

The speech explored our long history of adapting biology through cross breeding of animals and plants. It went on to look at the potential and risks of new technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 and gene drives in areas such as:

  • treating disease
  • preventing illnesses being passed from one generation to the next
  • preventing the spread of diseases such as zika and malaria
  • enhancing the nutritional value of food 
  • reducing the use of pesticides
  • controlling invasive species 
  • producing low carbon fuels or more environmentally friendly chemicals.

The speech also looked a little further into the future speculating that “In the future we could aim for more ambitious targets like trees designed to capture and store more carbon, or plants that remove pollution from land or react to explosives to show the location of land mines.”

Ramakrishnan raised serious questions that need to be discussed such as whether “’making’ biology rather than just affecting or disturbing it draw us into a new relationship with nature?” and whether “scientific developments in the future have the potential to raise profound questions about the moral differences between treating disease, making cosmetic changes and enhancing human abilities beyond what might be considered ‘normal’.”

He also looked at inconsistencies in public attitudes towards different applications of similar technologies. The example cited being the widespread acceptance of insulin for the treatment of diabetes produced by GM bacteria versus opposition to vanillin, a flavouring agent used in foods, that can also be produced by GM bacteria.  He highlighted the existence of separate but interrelated issues that need to be debated on their own terms such as the distribution of risks and benefits, the motives of those using the technology and the cultural factors that may influence attitudes.

In calling for open and well informed public debate he said, “It is important to recognise that we are not victims to the course of technology; we have choices that will shape its path.  Making wise choices on a case-by-case basis requires engagement both with the science and with values and principles.  It also requires public debate involving many voices – from scientists, campaigning organisations, industry representatives and policymakers.”

Read the full speech (PDF).

Find out more from the Royal Society about genetic technologies.