Editable Future: The Technical, Ethical, Legal, and Artistic Perspectives of Gene Editing

Yangming Wang

Gene editing is at the very forefront of biotech. On November 12, the Central Academy of Fine Arts played host to a seminar under the theme of “Editable Futures,” to which six researchers engaged in gene editing were invited to participate in dialogue. Their studies covered molecular biology, science and technology policy and law, and biological art. The discussion began with science and technology, gradually extended to social ethics and philosophy, and finally zeroed in on how to express confusion and expectation through art. The six lecturers from different fields respectively delivered lectures on different topics, and through multidisciplinary dialogue have promoted in-depth thinking on gene editing.

The first lecturer was Wang Yangming, researcher at the Institute of Molecular Medicine, Peking University and Berggruen Fellow (2019 – 2020). Wang offered a basic introduction to gene editing. The basis of gene editing is that DNA determines the genetic characteristics of human beings and a minute difference in gene character encoding can lead to great disparities. Gene editing is driven by application needs in fields such as gene function analysis, agricultural development, and disease treatment. At present, following the development of CRISPR technology, gene editing has become more precise with gradually decreasing costs. In closing, Wang made some simple remarks on the typical applications of gene editing, compared their advantages and disadvantages, and revealed that there are still some applications of which the effects will be difficult to judge, such as transhumanism.

Wang Haoyi, researcher at the State Key Laboratory of Stem Cell and Reproductive Biology and the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, shared his thoughts on the issue of baby gene editing and emphasized that conversations on gene editing should be based on specific facts instead of general discussion. In particular, it is necessary to distinguish whether the objects under discussion are heritable or not, and whether gene editing should be used for disease treatment or human enhancement. Finally, Wang reaffirmed that scientific problems require specific discussions that take into consideration potential risks and yield ratios. As for those scientific problems that have the power to exert huge social influence, scientists should develop their research with accountability and the public should join the discussion and participate responsibly.

Following the discussion on the scientific dimension of gene editing, Peng Yaojin, associate researcher from the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Institute, introduced “Ethical and Legal Disputes on Gene Editing the Human Reproductive System” from the dimension of legal analysis. Peng discussed the typical arguments surrounding the applications of gene editing of the human reproductive system, made horizontal comparisons of regulation mechanisms for gene editing in the international community, and comprehensively analyzed the differences between the United States, Germany, France, and the UK in legal regulation. After this, he explained the recent legislative developments in China and pointed out that the primary issue in China is that the level of legislation is low and punishment is light. With this in mind, Peng looked ahead to future legal regulations and expressed the need to intensify international cooperation. Each country should actively assume their responsibilities and obligations in the international governance of science. As for the situation in China, Peng stated that it is necessary to establish a powerful regulatory framework to improve governance effectiveness, follow the example of the UK for some aspects of institution building in the future, and bridge the gap between the scientific community and the public.

Extending from legal discussions to the realm of social ethics, Gao Lu, associate researcher at the Institute for the History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, introduced the historical developments and current status of biological treatment. Tracing back through history, Gao acquainted the audience with the Asilomar Conference, which represented the beginning of biological treatment as we know it today, and reflected on the scientist’s warning model that was marked and established by this conference. After this point, deeply affected by the Asilomar model, the United States National Research Council released Risk Assessment in the Federal Government, which set the tone for current risk treatment models—linear risk control and management based only on scientific fact. This kind of model ignores systematization and complexity and relies only on the self-regulation and control of the scientific world. Looking from this perspective at the abuse of gene editing technology also exposes the inappropriateness of the current risk management paradigm from another perspective. Gao pointed out that we should pursue the establishment of a new risk management model and shape scientific possibilities based on social needs in a more open and self-reflective spirit, rather than limiting risk management to “risks” and “securities” that have been determined by the scientists themselves. This kind of new paradigm calls for participation by more disciplines and more social groups as well as profound reflection on the relationship between technology and humans.

Back in the art field, Jo Wei, curator and technical art researcher at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, gave a speech themed “Genes as an Artistic Medium.” She began by introducing the school of bioart and then put forward the concept of pan-bioart, i.e. realizing the cross-section of art and biology from a greater number of dimensions. Biology, as technology, could be used in art; for example, biology may feature in artistic creation as a kind of material, data, or image. Alternatively, by regarding biology as a concept generator, an artistic work may be created by taking genes in the digital world as a symbolic mark, or by focusing on genes in the physical world, the gene may be transformed into real matter through central laws. Taking the Genesis Trilogy created by Kac as typical gene art, Wei analyzed the connotations of several art works including Genesis, “Green Fluorescent Protein Bunny,” and The Eighth Day one by one. Finally, she stated that the center of bioart has shifted from Europe to Asia, which has given us the opportunity to think deeply about life and technology within our own cultural context.

Renowned Portuguese bio artist Marta de Menezes began the discussion under the theme of “Identity: Where Do We Go?” Regarding the relationship between art and biology, she pointed out that human beings have impacted the creatures around us since ancient times, whereas the development of biology has enabled our transformation of the world to become more precise and highly effective. The form of art intervention enables us to reflect on changes in technology and knowledge from the metaphysical perspective of philosophy, and in the art world it has become increasingly popular to understand biology as a means of artistic creation. At the same time, de Menezes introduced her methodology of artistic creation and conveyed that her methods constitute her identity as an artist. In addition, she displayed several works of bioart that she had created in collaboration with researchers in laboratories worldwide, and shared her creation process, thoughts, and artistic ideology in relation to such works.