The Dawn of the Nuclease Age

The birth of Lulu and Nana has brought to light a major change in the course of our time. A new span has been opened when we, sentient lifeforms, have suddenly gained the ability to change genes in a generation yet to be born. Many dates can be traced back as the source for such milestone. History will probably remember 2012, when the most well-known nuclease, CRISPR-Cas9, was first introduced to the public as a tool to rewrite life.

Those terms, though still far from being household words, have been used by biologists for decades. What does it all mean? CRISPR-Cas9 is a technique derived from a bacterial defense system against virii. This biological system targets DNA sequences identified as foreign. But it can be modified in the laboratory in order to locate and cleave a designated DNA sequence. If used on a gene in a human cell, the organism will try to repair itself. It can do so by using the second available version of the gene, or allele, or use a DNA sequence brought in as a model. This CRISPR technique makes genome editing faster, cheaper and more reliable than what it used to be. It is a means, though still under active development, to rewrite DNA. We thought we had entered the Anthropocene more than two centuries ago. But we really just entered the age of the nucleases.

The change comes once more from the laboratory. The “Anthropocene” expression, which designates the geological era following the Holocene, implicitly carries the idea of human responsibility as the major geological factor on the planet. This idea escaped the scientific circles two decades ago. This “semantic virus”, as philosopher Peter Sloterdijk put is, soon contaminated the political sphere. It is a means to put mankind to trial for the damages inflicted to the Biosphere, a syntagma powerfully echoed throughout society. Even Karl Marx, centuries ago, wrote in the first book of the Capital: “Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and Nature.”

This idea of metabolic regulation links back to the living. The Anthropocene uses orders of magnitude who belong to rocks, not to the talking animals we claim to be. Our main concern might not be the overall distribution of carbon on the planet, but the capacity to edit genetic information whose expression, modulated by many factors, end up with creating humans. The technical mechanisms which enable us to rewrite DNA was always in the biosphere. Humans are currently learning how to weaponize the system.

CRISPR biopolitics

This crucial disruption in our History revives specific political perspectives. The concept of “biopolitics”, popularized by Michel Foucault in his History of Sexuality and reshaped by Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer, creates a distinction between the biological life, named zoe by the ancient Greek, and the political life, the bios. Agamben explores this dichotomy which lays the foundations of sovereign power. While it only supposed to deal with the bios (bios politikon, life in the city), but also reach as a last resort the zoe, the sovereign power – which hence revendicates the monopoly on physical violence – “creates” a biopolitical body. From Auschwitz to Guantanamo, the State can create areas in which individuals do not have any fundamental or political rights left (and hence lose their bios), all the while remaining subject to State violence organized by this same right. They become vulnerable to their fullest physical extent.

Using nucleases on human beings reconfigures this structure. Scientists, thanks to the infrastructures (hospitals, universities, laboratories) and human talent (students, engineers, researchers) put at their disposal by States, organize the intervention of the bios on the zoe, of the product of genetic engineering on DNA sequences whose expression will end up in one or more human lifeforms. The “norm”, in the sense of the structure that allows for organizing human societies, articulates “violence”, the intervention capacity of the community on the biosphere (humans included), to a yet unparalleled level.

Augmented humanity

The dawn of the nuclease rises from a rupture breaking the previous biopolitical binarity. If we agree with Agamben’s postulate that “the production of a biopolitical body is the original act of the sovereign power”, which means in substance that sovereign power lies in its ability to create an exception that allows it to bring to life or put to death, then we need to acknowledge that “bringing to life” is redefined by the power of the nucleases. This deliberate human handling of another parameter constituting the zoe, this ability to modify the conception of a future human being and its children after her or him, prompts questions about the design of an “augmented” humanity.

A hurdle to this reasoning would be that Lulu and Nana’s birth do not result from a deliberate and organized political project, but instead embodies a transgression. Its author would have been, at least morally, sanctioned. Analyzing the long series of texts which warn against the consequences of those techniques (institutional and parliamentary reports, international platforms such as the UNESCO or the Oviedo Convention) shows how unprepared we are to deal with such technology. Our collective inability to build an international frame to structure the debate and the ensuing norms was making room for such transgressive procedures to happen. He Jiankui successfully navigated under the radar of the international and national Chinese agencies. It appears that it wasn’t really hard to do so.

How did a man with so few published papers in this precise sector could manage such a feat? The technique had been debated and documented before, and the skills one doesn’t have can be bought from others. IVF are complex operations but became routine decades ago. Publications on CRISPR, human and animal, are numbered in thousands. It did happen a lot earlier than most anticipated. As it has always been the case with CRISPR.

A lot of scientific peer review, information, and context need to be brought to light concerning the birth of Lulu and Nana, the first CRISPR babies. But as the days, weeks and months go by, the feeling that this was the spark highlighting the tilt is getting stronger. We definitely have entered the age of the nucleases.


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