Summit to Explore Gene Technologies and Environmental Solutions

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

This week, Yale will host the Editing Nature Summit: Integrating Science and Collective Wisdom to Create Responsible Environmental Solutions Using Gene Technologies. The interdisciplinary event will draw together biologists, writers, ethicists, conservationists, technologists, designers, and others for two days of discussions on the potential applications and risks of gene editing technology to improve human health and the environment. Preregistration is required for all public events.
Lead organizer, Natalie Kofler, a postdoctoral researcher at Yale’s Department of Cardiology, says it was her love of the natural world, in addition to her training in cellular and molecular biology, that inspired her to organize the event. After spending years in the lab, Kofler found herself reconnecting with nature and the wider world, and deeply mourning how humans have mistreated each other and the Earth. From this period of mourning, she realized that she wanted to work on something that supported solutions to the environmental crisis.
“Only when you truly love something do you mourn something,” she said.
Inspired to make a difference, Kofler searched for opportunities that would allow her to use her scientific training to solve environmental challenges. She was intrigued by gene editing, a relatively new technology that allows scientists to alter or engineer a genetic sequence for a desired result.
Scientists say gene editing has huge potential to benefit human health and the environment, such as engineering coral to be more adaptive to warming ocean temperatures, or releasing mutated mosquitos into the environment to reduce the spread of infectious diseases like dengue fever, which has been on the rise in recent years. But modifying genes carries potential and real risks, and there are complex ethical issues that demand attention.
“Molecular biologists have created an amazing technology that can revolutionize our ability to modify living organisms to suit human needs and purposes, including control of debilitating vector-borne human diseases,” said Oswald “Os” Schmitz, Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), Director of the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies (YIBS), and member of the Editing Nature Steering Committee.But there is looming concern about what these organisms might do to the fabric of natural ecosystems once they are unleashed into the environment. It is therefore high time for some sober reflection on what this technology means, both pragmatically and ethically, for humans and the environment and how to wisely put the technology to good use.”
CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a gene editing technology based on a natural process whereby bacteria develop an adaptive immune system to protect themselves from viruses. Scientists use guide RNA to identify a specific genetic sequence and an enzyme called Cas9, which cuts the targeted gene. Normally when Cas9 makes a cut, DNA will repair itself, inducing mutations, which can then cause DNA to no longer be replicated or expressed. But scientists can also introduce a new genetic template once a cut is made and alter the DNA without destroying any genes. This allows scientists to make mutations and remove unwanted genes, or to add new sequences, or change preexisting genes in an organism.
In addition, through a process called Gene Drive, scientists can use “selfish genes” — those that have a greater than 50 percent chance of being passed from parent to offspring — to drive a desired mutation throughout a given population. And compared to other technologies, gene editing is highly specific, less expensive, and more quickly developed.
CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology is different from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which has traditionally involved the splicing of one gene into another. “For example, with gene editing, if you know there’s already naturally occurring mutations in corn that that make them more drought resistant, you can edit the DNA so they express these naturally occurring mutations,” Kofler said. She also insists there are lessons to be learned from the GMO controversy, such as limiting corporate interests and improving transparency and public engagement.
“That’s part of what we’re trying to do here — to start an open dialogue about this technology and how it’s being used because no one likes to feel tricked or left in the dark,” she said.
The Editing Nature Summit opens Thursday afternoon, April 20, at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History with keynote addresses by evolutionary ecologist James Collins and the esteemed science writer, Emma Marris. Collins, the Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment at Arizona State University will deliver a talk entitled “Altering Nature by Gene Editing: We can, but Should We?” Collins studies the role of host-pathogen pathways in species decline and extinction, and recently co-chaired the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine committee on “Gene Drive Research in Non-Human Organisms: Recommendations for Responsible Conduct.” Marris is a former staff writer at Nature whose work has appeared in Discover, Grist, National Geographic, the New York Times, Orion, and Slate. Her first book, “Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World” challenged the often-unquestioned notion of nature as pristine wilderness separate from humans and instead presents an optimistic vision of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden tended by people. Marris will deliver a talk entitled “From Genes to Ecosystems: Valuing Nature.”
The summit continues on Friday at Rosenfeld Hall with a series of short talks and round table discussions on the potential benefits and risks of engineered life forms, ranging from biomedical and ecological applications to discussions of the ethical implications and existential problems that gene editing presents.
The summit is sponsored by YIBS, the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, and the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities.
“My parents are biologists and I have always been obsessed with drawing cities, so the idea of somehow fusing the two has always fascinated me,” said Misha Semenov '19 M.E.M., M.Arch., a joint degree student at F&ES and the School of Architecture who helped organize the summit and hopes to discover new ways that insights from ecological science can help to inform urban design. “My interest in using engineered organisms as part of a new vision for adaptive, self-growing, self-healing, and self-sustaining buildings and cities of the future was sparked this summer in an internship with The Living, to write and illustrate a sort of manifesto calling for a new, open-source approach to the fusion of design and science that we are witnessing with the rise of CRISPR and Gene Drive.”
Ethical issues, and what Kofler calls “collective wisdom,” will be highlighted at this week’s summit. “I believe that at the society level, collective wisdom comes from the diverse viewpoints, values, and experiences held by each individual that makes up the whole. This is why diversity is so important in a group,” she said. “It is that magical equilibrium of diverse sources of wisdom or knowingness that allows for the co-creation of entirely new kinds of solutions and ideas. From a scientific perspective, that voice isn’t given enough honor, or isn’t loud enough or heard or listened to as often as should be.”
“This conference is a good example of seeking ‘collective wisdom’ by listening to various perspectives and beginning to weigh ethical implications,” said Mary Evelyn Tucker, a senior lecturer and senior research scholar at F&ES and the Yale Divinity School, who is involved with the summit. “I think the precautionary principle may be invaluable as we examine these issues together.”
“Wisdom and beauty and spirituality were all things I felt I had to check at the door when I walked into the lab,” Kofler said. “We cannot continue doing science that way, and on the other hand, we can’t not allow science to inform our wisdom.”
“This technology gives us a whole new set of tools to approach issues, in a completely different way than we ever have before, in a way that could actually, I think, unite us with nature in a new way,” she said. “At the end of the day, DNA unites all of us. We share it — all of us, from the smallest little microorganism to humans. And it would be very sad to me to see these technologies not being used based on some kind of fear, and it would also be really sad to me to see it not being used appropriately either.”
– Timothy Brown    203 436-9503