November 18, 2016

There are a million and one animals in this picture. Credit: Megan Coughlin / Flickr Creative Commons

The number of lyme disease cases on the East Coast has almost tripled since 1995. Kevin Esvelt, of MIT’s Media Lab, thinks he might have a solution. He wants to release thousands of genetically engineered mice onto an uninhabited island off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. The idea? To stop tick-borne Lyme disease.

But Esvelt’s ambitions go way beyond ticks. He hopes his Martha’s Vineyard experiment will challenge both citizens and scientists to think hard about the effects of large-scale science. If one researcher can create technology that will affect many lives, Esvelt believes that the public should help decide how to use it.

Three takeaways:

  • Esvelt works on gene drives -- or a genetic trait that is passed down from organism to organism. But Esvelt thinks that technology needs to be monitored: “A single researcher working in the lab could make an organism, where if they make a mistake, or it gets out, could start a process of changing all of the mice.”
  • Esvelt’s tick plan is clever, but he’ll need to jump through a lot of hoops to make it happen. And there might be other, more simple solutions: “If they just shot all the deer then they wouldn’t have a problem. But they’ve decided they’re not going to do this. Because… Bambi.”
  • Even if he doesn’t get approval, Esvelt thinks his experiment is still worthwhile: “If people say no, that would be disappointing. But sometimes it’s equally valuable to show, as a scientist, that we’re willing to drop it and walk away. Because the people need to know that we’re willing to drop it and walk away. That hasn’t always been true. To our shame.” 

More Reading:

NPR, Mice, Kevin Esvelt, innovation hub, WGBH, Kara Miller

Previous Post

Why Cash Could Be The Future Of Foreign Aid

Next Post

Full Show: A Mental Reset

comments powered by Disqus