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In the opening to We Have Never Been Modern (1993) sociologist Bruno Latour describes a newspaper report on the hole in the ozone layer. The article links a dizzying array of items: the Antarctic, refrigerators, aerosols, the arcane chemistry of inert gases, international scientific collaborations, and the design of factory assembly lines. Together they weave “the most esoteric sciences and sordid politics.” Ozone is a classic Latourian science-society hybrid: it resists all efforts to fence off pure from applied science and science from politics.

One Latourian hybrid now fascinating researchers and the public is the gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9. What began with an attempt to build a better yogurt now has journalists speculating about Brave New World (1932) scenarios. Scientists, ethicists, entrepreneurs, and officials across the globe want to reap the benefits while guarding against errors and side effects.

So, yogurt. In 2007 scientists working for Danisco, a Danish food ingredient company now owned by Dupont, invented a method for encouraging virus resistance in Streptococcus thermophilus, a bacterium critical to yogurt and cheese production. The Danisco researchers took... see more