On Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver dove into the complicated subject of gene editing. Noting that news regarding the phenomena is often met with “varying degrees of excitement or extreme alarm,” the late-night host pondered the polar extremes of this futuristic science procedure, imploring that scientists handle experiments with responsibility. “It seems gene editing is either going to cure all disease or kill every last one of us,” Oliver said.
Gene editing has the potential to cure disease with a tool known as CRISPR. Oliver points out that CRISPR kits happen to be so affordable that biohackers like Josiah Zayner advocate for large-scale public access to gene editing technology. Oliver shows a clip of Zayner, who sells CRISPR kits out of his garage in California’s Bay Area, advocating for gene editing technology to be as accessible as downloading an app—even for those who don’t understand how the technology works.
Oliver emphasizes that this lack of understanding is a significant factor in the risks of gene editing. Even professional scientists have no way to be certain of the effects genetically modified species might have on their ecosystems. Oliver applauds a scientist in Nantucket who is taking great care in an experiment to eradicate Lyme disease in mice—but he still can’t be certain that the change won’t be harmful to other animals in the island environment. In the media, there is an ongoing discussion of the potential risks in genetically modified embryos, or what Oliver refers to as the concept of creating “designer babies.” Uncertainty about what qualifies as a “flaw” to be fixed with modified genes has led to discussions on whether traits like dwarfism or deafness should be viewed as disabilities in need of a cure. Oliver shows a clip of a woman with dwarfism who says, “I don’t suffer from dwarfism, I’ve lived with dwarfism for thirty-nine years…I suffer from how society treats me.”
Of course, Oliver still manages to find the humor in gene editing, noting that strange lab experiments in the field have resulted in “the most muscular beagles in the world,” and the conceptual resurrection of a “semi-wooly mammoth.” More fantastical gene editing theories have dreamed up creatures like a 30-foot-tall wolf or the combination of traits from a horse and an ancient rhinoceros to create a type of unicorn. But these far-flung theories are still some time away from becoming reality. Many years of research and experiments need to be done before designer babies and deformed unicorns can roam the earth.