Sometimes innovations do not work out as expected or intended, with the inevitable consequences. People have long been afraid of this, as the 200-year-old novel Frankenstein demonstrates. How do Wageningen scientists view the risks associated with their research?
text Stijn van Gills illustration Geert-Jan Bruins
Has the microbiologist John van der Oost ever felt like Frankenstein? ‘Never’ is his emphatic answer. ‘I assume you’re referring to my CRISPR-Cas research?’ The researcher who was involved in the inception of this new method for making precise changes to DNA in organisms does not seem pleased with the comparison.
He feels it fails to acknowledge the many potential benefits of CRISPR-Cas. For example, the technique can be used to correct errors in the DNA and could consequently cure hereditary diseases. But it can also be a tool for developing food crops that can withstand drought or certain diseases, reducing the need for pesticides, water and energy to feed the global population.
Yet Van der Oost notes that the media like to zoom in on the potential dangers. That focus on fears is not new. It is exactly 200 years ago this year that Mary Shelley published her novel Frankenstein. It tells the story of a scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who comes up with an experiment in which he attaches dead body parts to one another and brings them to life with electricity. The result: an uncontrollable monster that ultimately commits a number of murders.
The moral of the story? Opinions differ on this, explains Henk van den Belt, assistant professor in the Philosophy chair group. He wrote an essay on the book for Science at the start of the year. ‘Some interpret it as a plea not to be ambitious. Man should not try to play God.’ But the philosopher feels this anti-science interpretation is too one-sided.
Others read the book as saying Frankenstein’s experiment was not wrong in itself but the scientist did not take sufficient care of his creation. ‘The monster needed love but didn’t get it, which is why it went off the rails.’ Van den Belt finds this explanation too restrictive too: he thinks the book does indeed contain suggestions that some aspects of the experiment went too far.
The design and result of Frankenstein’s experiment are as bizarre as they are unreal. But if you look beyond the literal side of the story, there are plenty of parallels with modern-day Wageningen research. That research can also potentially lead to unexpected outcomes. The notion of something out of control is not so strange with a completely new technology like CRISPR-Cas. The technology can in theory be used to create designer babies or weapons that only have an effect on certain groups within the population. But even apparently safe lines of research can have unexpected side-effects.
Kor Oldenbroek, for example, worked at Wageningen Livestock Research on the improvement of cattle breeds, using the classic approach of selecting cows and bulls in a breeding programme. ‘Sometimes you find milk production increases but at the same time the cows become less fertile.’ Because breeding programmes are relatively slow processes, Oldenbroek says animal breeders can respond in time and reverse developments that are resulting in animals with unwanted properties.
It is important, however to track the ‘breeding circle’, he stresses. ‘You always have to be very careful in setting objectives and evaluating them afterwards to make sure you are getting the desired results without any adverse side-effects.’ That evaluation is even more important, he says, when using new techniques that speed up the breeding process.
Edith Feskens, professor of Nutrition and Health, does not immediately see any threats in her own research. After all, she studies how people respond to ‘ordinary food products’. This involves looking for relationships between what large numbers of people are eating anyway and certain diseases.
Even so, Feskens has occasionally refused studies because the results could have become an uncontrollable monster. An occupational health and safety company wanted to know whether certain groups within the population were more susceptible to specific diet-related diseases. The idea was that those groups could be given more customized advice. ‘There is nothing wrong with this scientifically. And there is evidence that more customized advice has more effect. But it would also mean the health and safety company having access to data on people’s genetic background and you never know what else they might use it for.’ Feskens refused that research project.
There have been many more occasions, however, when Feskens did perform the study but tried to supress the ‘monster’ in what she communicated about the outcomes. ‘I am very cautious in press releases. If I were to find sugar had a beneficial health effect, I would first check and recheck my calculations, then publish it in a scientific journal but still not announce it in a press release. I think we need to be more circumspect as scientists. After all, a single study doesn’t mean anything.’
Talking about the downsides
Molecular Life Sciences Master’s student Carina Nieuwenweg thinks scientists should be morally obliged to reflect on the potentially negative consequences of their work. She is studying how techniques such as CRISPR-Cas can make life easier. She is combining this study with training at the Dutch Defence Academy where she is trying to get a picture of how enemies could weaponize those same techniques. ‘As a scientist, you need to think ten steps ahead and have solutions for abuses before there has been any abuse.’
Nieuwenweg says there is enough debate in her degree course on how far you should go with techniques like CRISPR-Cas. But the communication could be more open. ‘It comes across as much more honest if a scientist mentions all the downsides too. That makes you look much more neutral.’ She thinks some scientists are afraid to speak their minds because of the way the public debate on genetic manipulation has been going. Genetic modification is still largely banned in Europe, despite the potential benefits for the environment, because of the perceived potential dangers.
The philosopher Van den Belt is also sympathetic to the idea of completely frank communication. He says this could ultimately mean that a scientist may not be able to proceed with research they see as completely legitimate, even when scientists elsewhere in the world are allowed to continue. ‘That is an observation, not a judgement. I personally feel there are specific applications that could be beneficial for the environment. It would be a shame if they didn’t get a chance.’
Van den Belt is not impressed by the argument that you can’t prevent innovation. ‘It seems to be working pretty well in Europe with genetically modified food.’