Carl Zimmer, the award-winning New York Times science writer, recently published a stellar book about human heredity called "She Has Her Mother's Laugh." Truly a magnum opus, the book delves into the cultural and scientific evolution of genetics, the field's outsize impact on society, and the new ways we might fundamentally alter our species and our planet.
"I was only prepared to write about how someday we would cross this line, and actually, we've already crossed it."
Zimmer spoke last week with editor-in-chief Kira Peikoff about the international race to edit the genes of human embryos, the biggest danger he sees for society (hint: it's not super geniuses created by CRISPR), and some outlandish possibilities for how we might reproduce in the future. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I was struck by the number of surprises you uncovered while researching human heredity, like how fetal cells can endure for a lifetime in a mother's body and brain. What was one of the biggest surprises for you?
Something that really jumped out for me was for the section on genetically modifying people. It does seem incredibly hypothetical. But then I started looking into mitochondrial replacement therapy, so-called "three parent babies." I was really surprised to discover that almost by accident, a number of genetically modified people were created this way [in the late 90s and early 2000s]. They walk among us, and they're actually fine as far as anyone can tell. I was only prepared to write about how someday we would cross this line, and actually, we've already crossed it.
And now we have the current arms race between the U.S. and China to edit diseases out of human embryos, with China being much more willing and the U.S. more reluctant. Do you think it's more important to get ahead or to proceed as ethically as possible?
I would prefer a middle road. I think that rushing into tinkering with the features of human heredity could be a disastrous mistake for a lot of reasons. On the other hand, if we completely retreat from it out of some vague fear, I think that we won't take advantage of the actual benefits that this technology might have that are totally ethically sound.
I think the United Kingdom is actually showing how you can go the middle route with mitochondrial replacement therapy. The United States has just said nope, you can't do it at all, and you have Congressmen talking about how it's just playing God or Frankenstein. And then there are countries like Mexico or the Ukraine where people are doing mitochondrial replacement therapy because there are no regulations at all. It's a wild west situation, and that's not a good idea either.
But in the UK, they said alright, well let's talk about this, let's have a debate in Parliament, and they did, and then the government came up with a well thought-through policy. They decided that they were going to allow for this, but only in places that applied for a license, and would be monitored, and would keep track of the procedure and the health of these children and actually have real data going forward. I would imagine that they're going to very soon have their first patients.
As you mentioned, one researcher recently traveled to Mexico from New York to carry out the so-called "three-parent baby" procedure in order to escape the FDA's rules. What's your take on scientists having to leave their own jurisdictions to advance their research programs under less scrutiny?
I think it's a problem when people who have a real medical need have to leave their own country to get truly effective treatment for it. On the other hand, we're seeing lots of people going abroad to countries that don't monitor all the claims that clinics are making about their treatments. So you have stem cell clinics in all sorts of places that are making all sorts of ridiculous promises. They're not delivering those results, and in some cases, they're doing harm.
"Advances in stem cell biology and reproductive biology are a much bigger challenge to our conventional ideas about heredity than CRISPR is."
It's a tricky tension for sure. Speaking of gene editing humans, you mention in the book that one of the CRISPR pioneers, Jennifer Doudna, now has recurring nightmares about Hitler. Do you think that her fears about eugenics being revived with gene editing are justified?
The word "eugenics" has a long history and it's meant different things to different people. So we have to do a better job of talking about it in the future if we really want to talk about the risks and the promises of technology like CRISPR. Eugenics in its most toxic form was an ideology that let governments, including the United States, sterilize their own citizens by the tens of thousands. Then Nazi Germany also used eugenics as a justification to exterminate many more people.
Nobody's talking about that with CRISPR. Now, are people concerned that we are going to wipe out lots of human genetic diversity with it? That would be a bad thing, but I'm skeptical that would actually ever happen. You would have to have some sort of science fiction one-world government that required every new child to be born with IVF. It's not something that keeps me up at night. Honestly, I think we have much bigger problems to worry about.
What is the biggest danger relating to genetics that we should be aware of?
Part of what made eugenics such a toxic ideology was that it was used as a justification for indifference. In other words, if there are problems in society, like a large swath of people who are living in poverty, well, there's nothing you can do about it because it must be due to genetics.
If you look at genetics as being the sole place where you can solve humanity's problems, then you're going to say well, there's no point in trying to clean up the environment or trying to improve human welfare.
A major theme in your book is that we should not narrow our focus on genes as the only type of heredity. We also may inherit some epigenetic marks, some of our mother's microbiome and mitochondria, and importantly, our culture and our environment. Why does an expanded view of heredity matter?
We should think about the world that our children are going to inherit, and their children, and their children. They're going to inherit our genes, but they're also going to inherit this planet and we're doing things that are going to have an incredibly long-lasting impact on it. I think global warming is one of the biggest. When you put carbon dioxide into the air, it stays there for a very, very long time. If we stopped emitting carbon dioxide now, the Earth would stay warm for many centuries. We should think about tinkering with the future of genetic heredity, but I think we should also be doing that with our environmental heredity and our cultural heredity.
At the end of the book, you discuss some very bizarre possibilities for inheritance that could be made possible through induced pluripotent stem cell technology and IVF -- like four-parent babies, men producing eggs, and children with 8-celled embryos as their parents. If this is where reproductive medicine is headed, how can ethics keep up?
I'm not sure actually. I think that these advances in stem cell biology and reproductive biology are a much bigger challenge to our conventional ideas about heredity than CRISPR is. With CRISPR, you might be tweaking a gene here and there, but they're still genes in an embryo which then becomes a person, who would then have children -- the process our species has been familiar with for a long time.
"We have to recognize that we need a new language that fits with the science of heredity in the 21st century."
We all assume that there's no way to find a fundamentally different way of passing down genes, but it turns out that it's not really that hard to turn a skin cell from a cheek scraping into an egg or sperm. There are some challenges that still have to be worked out to make this something that could be carried out a lot in labs, but I don't see any huge barriers to it. Ethics doesn't even have the language to discuss the possibilities. Like for example, one person producing both male and female sex cells, which are then fertilized to produce embryos so that you have a child who only has one parent. How do we even talk about that? I don't know. But that's coming up fast.
We haven't developed our language as quickly as the technology itself. So how do we move forward?
We have to recognize that we need a new language that fits with the science of heredity in the 21st century. I think one of the biggest problems we have as a society is that most of our understanding about these issues largely comes from what we learned in grade school and high school in biology class. A high school biology class, even now, gets up to Mendel and then stops. Gregor Mendel is a great place to start, but it's a really bad place to stop talking about heredity.
[Ed. Note: Zimmer's book can be purchased through your retailer of choice here.]
The cover of Zimmer's new book about genetics.
A natural material that looks and feels like real leather is taking the fashion world by storm. Scientists view mycelium—the vegetative part of a mushroom-producing fungus—as a planet-friendly alternative to animal hides and plastics.
Products crafted from this vegan leather are emerging, with others poised to hit the market soon. Among them are the Hermès Victoria bag, Lululemon's yoga accessories, Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo sneaker, and a Stella McCartney apparel collection.
The Adidas Stan Smith Mylo shoe, made with an alternative leather grown from mycelium, to be released in 2022.
Hermès has held presales on the new bag, says Philip Ross, co-founder and chief technology officer of MycoWorks, a San Francisco Bay area firm whose materials constituted the design. By year-end, Ross expects several more clients to debut mycelium-based merchandise. With "comparable qualities to luxury leather," mycelium can be molded to engineer "all the different verticals within fashion," he says, particularly footwear and accessories.
More than a half-dozen trailblazers are fine-tuning mycelium to create next-generation leather materials, according to the Material Innovation Initiative, a nonprofit advocating for animal-free materials in the fashion, automotive, and home-goods industries. These high-performance products can supersede items derived from leather, silk, down, fur, wool, and exotic skins, says A. Sydney Gladman, the institute's chief scientific officer.
That's only the beginning of mycelium's untapped prowess. "We expect to see an uptick in commercial leather alternative applications for mycelium-based materials as companies refine their R&D [research and development] and scale up," Gladman says, adding that "technological innovation and untapped natural materials have the potential to transform the materials industry and solve the enormous environmental challenges it faces."
In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long. We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal."
Reducing our carbon footprint becomes possible because mycelium can flourish in indoor farms, using agricultural waste as feedstock and emitting inherently low greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas. "We often think that when plant tissues like wood rot, that they go from something to nothing," says Jonathan Schilling, professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of Minnesota and a member of MycoWorks' Scientific Advisory Board.
But that assumption doesn't hold true for all carbon in plant tissues. When the fungi dominating the decomposition of plants fulfill their function, they transform a large portion of carbon into fungal biomass, Schilling says. That, in turn, ends up in the soil, with mycelium forming a network underneath that traps the carbon.
Unlike the large amounts of fossil fuels needed to produce styrofoam, leather and plastic, less fuel-intensive processing is involved in creating similar materials with a fungal organism. While some fungi consist of a single cell, others are multicellular and develop as very fine threadlike structures. A mass of them collectively forms a "mycelium" that can be either loose and low density or tightly packed and high density. "When these fungi grow at extremely high density," Schilling explains, "they can take on the feel of a solid material such as styrofoam, leather or even plastic."
Tunable and supple in the cultivation process, mycelium is also reliably sturdy in composition. "We believe that mycelium has some unique attributes that differentiate it from plastic-based and animal-derived products," says Gavin McIntyre, who co-founded Ecovative Design, an upstate New York-based biomaterials company, in 2007 with the goal of displacing some environmentally burdensome materials and making "a meaningful impact on our planet."
After inventing a type of mushroom-based packaging for all sorts of goods, in 2013 the firm ventured into manufacturing mycelium that can be adapted for textiles, he says, because mushrooms are "nature's recycling system."
The company aims for its material—which is "so tough and tenacious" that it doesn't require any plastic add-on as reinforcement—to be generally accessible from a pricing standpoint and not confined to a luxury space. The cost, McIntyre says, would approach that of bovine leather, not the more upscale varieties of lamb and goat skins.
Already, production has taken off by leaps and bounds. In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long," he says. "We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal," so there's a much lower scrap rate.
Decreasing the scrap rate is a major selling point. "Our customers can order the pieces to the way that they want them, and there is almost no waste in the processing," explains Ross of MycoWorks. "We can make ours thinner or thicker," depending on a client's specific needs. Growing materials locally also results in a reduction in transportation, shipping and other supply chain costs, he says.
Yet another advantage to making things out of mycelium is its biodegradability at the end of an item's lifecycle. When a pair of old sneakers lands in a compost pile or landfill, it decomposes thanks to microbial processes that, once again, involve fungi. "It is cool to think that the same organism used to create a product can also be what recycles it, perhaps building something else useful in the same act," says biologist Schilling. That amounts to "more than a nice business model—it is a window into how sustainability works in nature."
A product can be called "sustainable" if it's biodegradable, leaves a minimal carbon footprint during production, and is also profitable, says Preeti Arya, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and faculty adviser to a student club of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, products composed of petroleum-based polymers don't biodegrade—they break down into smaller pieces or even particles. These remnants pollute landfills, oceans and rivers, contaminating edible fish and eventually contributing to the growth of benign and cancerous tumors in humans, Arya says.
Commending the steps a few designers have taken toward bringing more environmentally conscious merchandise to consumers, she says, "I'm glad that they took the initiative because others also will try to be part of this competition toward sustainability." And consumers will take notice. "The more people become aware, the more these brands will start acting on it."
A further shift toward mycelium-based products has the capability to reap tremendous environmental dividends, says Drew Endy, associate chair of bioengineering at Stanford University and president of the BioBricks Foundation, which focuses on biotechnology in the public interest.
The continued development of "leather surrogates on a scaled and sustainable basis will provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, in perpetuity," Endy says. "Transitioning the production of leather goods from a process that involves the industrial-scale slaughter of vertebrate mammals to a process that instead uses renewable fungal-based manufacturing will be more just."
Amy Bitterman, who teaches at Rutgers Law School in Newark, gets enormous pleasure from her three mixed-breed rescue cats, Spike, Dee, and Lucy. To manage her chronically stuffy nose, three times a week she takes Allegra D, which combines the antihistamine fexofenadine with the decongestant pseudoephedrine. Amy's dog allergy is rougher--so severe that when her sister launched a business, Pet Care By Susan, from their home in Edison, New Jersey, they knew Susan would have to move elsewhere before she could board dogs. Amy has tried to visit their brother, who owns a Labrador Retriever, taking Allegra D beforehand. But she began sneezing, and then developed watery eyes and phlegm in her chest.
"It gets harder and harder to breathe," she says.
Animal lovers have long dreamed of "hypo-allergenic" cats and dogs. Although to date, there is no such thing, biotechnology is beginning to provide solutions for cat-lovers. Cats are a simpler challenge than dogs. Dog allergies involve as many as seven proteins. But up to 95 percent of people who have cat allergies--estimated at 10 to 30 percent of the population in North America and Europe--react to one protein, Fel d1. Interestingly, cats don't seem to need Fel d1. There are cats who don't produce much Fel d1 and have no known health problems.
The current technologies fight Fel d1 in ingenious ways. Nestle Purina reached the market first with a cat food, Pro Plan LiveClear, launched in the U.S. a year and a half ago. It contains Fel d1 antibodies from eggs that in effect neutralize the protein. HypoCat, a vaccine for cats, induces them to create neutralizing antibodies to their own Fel d1. It may be available in the United States by 2024, says Gary Jennings, chief executive officer of Saiba Animal Health, a University of Zurich spin-off. Another approach, using the gene-editing tool CRISPR to create a medication that would splice out Fel d1 genes in particular tissues, is the furthest from fruition.
"Our goal was to ensure that whatever we do has no negative impact on the cat."
Customer demand is high. "We already have a steady stream of allergic cat owners contacting us desperate to have access to the vaccine or participate in the testing program," Jennings said. "There is a major unmet medical need."
More than a third of Americans own a cat (while half own a dog), and pet ownership is rising. With more Americans living alone, pets may be just the right amount of company. But the number of Americans with asthma increases every year. Of that group, some 20 to 30 percent have pet allergies that could trigger a possibly deadly attack. It is not clear how many pets end up in shelters because their owners could no longer manage allergies. Instead, allergists commonly report that their patients won't give up a beloved companion.
No one can completely avoid Fel d1, which clings to clothing and lands everywhere cat-owners go, even in schools and new homes never occupied by cats. Myths among cat-lovers may lead them to underestimate their own level of risk. Short hair doesn't help: the length of cat hair doesn't affect the production of Fel d1. Bathing your cat will likely upset it and accomplish little. Washing cuts the amount on its skin and fur only for two days. In one study, researchers measured the Fel d1 in the ambient air in a small chamber occupied by a cat—and then washed the cat. Three hours later, with the cat in the chamber again, the measurable Fel d1 in the air was lower. But this benefit was gone after 24 hours.
For years, the best option has been shots for people that prompt protective antibodies. Bitterman received dog and cat allergy injections twice a week as a child. However, these treatments require up to 100 injections over three to five years, and, as in her case, the effect may be partial or wear off. Even if you do opt for shots, treating the cat also makes sense, since you could protect more than one allergic member of your household and any allergic visitors as well.
An Allergy-Neutralizing Diet
Cats produce much of their Fel d1 in their saliva, which then spreads it to their fur when they groom, observed Nestle Purina immunologist Ebenezer Satyaraj. He realized that this made saliva—and therefore a cat's mouth--an unusually effective site for change. Hens exposed to Fel d1 produce their own antibodies, which survive in their eggs. The team coated LiveClear food with a powder form of these eggs; once in a cat's mouth, the chicken antibody binds to the Fel d1 in the cat's saliva, neutralizing it.
The results are partial: In a study with 105 cats, the level of active Fel d1 in their fur had dropped on average by 47 percent after ten weeks eating LiveClear. Cats that produced more Fel d1 at baseline had a more robust response, with a drop of up to 71 percent. A safety study found no effects on cats after six months on the diet. "Our goal was to ensure that whatever we do has no negative impact on the cat," Satyaraj said. Might a dogfood that minimizes dog allergens be on the way? "There is some early work," he said.
This is a year when vaccines changed the lives of billions. Saiba's vaccine, HypoCat, delivers recombinant Fel d1 and the coat from a plant virus (the Cucumber mosaic virus) without any vital genetic information. The viral coat serves as a carrier. A cat would need shots once or twice a year to produce antibodies that neutralize Fel d1.
HypoCat works much like any vaccine, with the twist that the enemy is the cat's own protein. Is that safe? Saiba's team has followed 70 cats treated with the vaccine over two years and they remain healthy. Again the active Fel d1 doesn't disappear but diminishes. The team asked 10 people with cat allergies to report on their symptoms when they pet their vaccinated cats. Eight of them could pet their cat for nearly a half hour before their symptoms began, compared with an average of 17 minutes before the vaccine.
Jennings hopes to develop a HypoDog shot with a similar approach. However, the goal would be to target four or five proteins in one vaccine, and that increases the risk of hurting the dog. In the meantime, allergic dog-lovers considering an expensive breeder dog might think again: Independent research does not support the idea that any breed of dog produces less dander in the home. In fact, one well-designed study found that Spanish water dogs, Airedales, poodles and Labradoodles--breeds touted as hypo-allergenic--had significantly more of the most common allergen on their coat than an ordinary Lab and the control group.
One day you might be able to bring your cat to the vet once a year for an injection that would modify specific tissues so they wouldn't produce Fel d1.
Nicole Brackett, a postdoctoral scientist at Viriginia-based Indoor Biotechnologies, which specializes in manufacturing biologics for allergy and asthma, most recently has used CRISPR to identify Fel d1 genetic sequences in cells from 50 domestic cats and 24 exotic ones. She learned that the sequences vary substantially from one cat to the next. This discovery, she says, backs up the observations that Fel d1 doesn't have a vital purpose.
The next step will be a CRISPR knockout of the relevant genes in cells from feline salivary glands, a prime source of Fel d1. Although the company is considering using CRISPR to edit the genes in a cat embryo and possibly produce a Fel d1-free cat, designer cats won't be its ultimate product. Instead, the company aims to produce injections that could treat any cat.
Reducing pet allergens at home could have a compound benefit, Indoor Biotechnologies founder Martin Chapman, an immunologist, notes: "When you dampen down the response to one allergen, you could also dampen it down to multiple allergens." As allergies become more common around the world, that's especially good news.