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Hastings Center News

Natalie Kofler: What Role Should Humans Play in “Editing Nature”?

Natalie Kofler, a postdoctoral research scientist at Yale University, visited The Hastings Center earlier this summer to explore the ethical questions surrounding the use of gene editing technologies in the environment. Kofler shared insights from the Editing Nature summit, which brought together a multidisciplinary group to discuss the impact of these emerging techniques. To learn more about the Editing Nature summit, click here.

She reflected on her work in a brief video, below. Here is an edited transcript.

I’m working at Yale University on a project called Editing Nature, where we’re looking at the use of gene technologies and their application for environmental solutions.We’re looking at the use of gene editing technologies like CRISPR/Cas9, and how they can be applied for environmental issues. As I began exploring this topic, I was really excited by the opportunities that gene editing allowed for in the environmental space.

We have the possibility to change the genome of any living thing, in a very sophisticated, targeted, and inexpensive way. This could allow us to do things like modify the genome of invasive species to help limit their spread in non-native regions. We could also use gene editing to make trees more drought-resistant and able to deal with the effects of climate change. And so these opportunities are really exciting, creating a whole new way of approaching environmental issues.

But at the same time, we’re modifying living organisms, and these modifications are being specifically engineered to be driven through wild populations. This has huge ecological risks that demand a real thoughtfulness and foresight in how they’re applied.

So it’s a very complex issue. It’s complex at the genetic level, it’s complex at the ecological level, and it’s incredibly complex at the level of humans—of us, and our values; what’s important to us and what we feel comfortable with.

To start to tackle this complex issue, we hosted a summit at Yale in April 2017 called Editing Nature. The goal of this summit was to bring together a very diverse group of people from multiple disciplines to come together in a very respectful, transparent, and open way, to discuss this issue. We had ecologists, environmentalists, engineers, technologists, geneticists, architects, divinity school members, lawyers, philosophers, and ethicists come to the table and talk about editing nature.

We began to find that we talked less and less about the technology and more about the really deep, deep questions about who we are as humans in this world.How do we relate to nature? What is okay to do to nature? What is natural? Questions about playing God came up, which is a very serious thing to talk about.

So there was something about this technology that felt different. It felt more impactful; it felt more long-lasting. It had an invasive quality to it that demanded that we really look at what we felt was important and what we valued. That inherently had a large bioethical component to it.

And that’s what brought me to The Hastings Center. I wanted to sort of unpack these issues of how we relate to each other, how we relate to the natural world, and what is important to us. I had the opportunity to interact with a variety of unbelievable scholars and thinkers in the space of bioethics. I had the opportunity to present my work and get feedback from the group in its entirety at Hastings. I had plenty of time to chat with people individually, both casually and in more formal situations, to discuss my project, as well as to discuss the products that were trying to come out of our Editing Nature summit.

I think what was also really exciting for me was the beginning of what I hope will be lifelong, career-long, relationships with the amazing folks here at Hastings. Another thing that I think was really important for my work specifically, but really I think for anyone when you’re trying to get down to these really core issues, is the unbelievable setting of The Hastings Center on the banks of the Hudson River. I spent a lot of my time outside on the bench on the great lawn, connecting with nature: the very thing we’re trying to save through this work.

I leave feeling refreshed and excited to move forward, and very grateful for the time that I was able to spend here.