When Does Science Go Too Far?

Deborah Blum in The New York Times:

It was late in 1972 — a year in which the science of genetic engineering really began to sizzle — that two California researchers announced the unusually tidy transfer of genetic information from one bacterium to another with help from a specialized enzyme. It was a scientifically heralded result, but behind the hoopla was just one small catch. The information transferred enabled a common human disease bacterium, E. coli, to resist not just one antibiotic, but two. “Alarm bells should have rung,” writes Matthew Cobb, in his deeply researched and often deeply troubling history of gene science. And that nothing did ring — that scientific success trumped the obvious risks of the work — becomes the focus of his book’s primary inquiry: whether a research community capable of altering life is also capable of putting ethical decisions first.

Cobb, a biology professor at the University of Manchester and the author of several popular science books, is far from the first scientist to lose sleep over this question. And he acknowledges this, emphasizing the many positive and corrective steps taken by geneticists over the past 50 years. Members of the global community have raised other alarms, such as a furious reaction to gain-of-function research in viruses — which serves to deliberately render them more pathogenic — and have instituted moratoriums on some of the most dangerous aspects of the research. In such cases, Cobb describes the behavior of those in the field as “exemplary.”

More here.