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The Nobel prize in chemistry awarded last year to the biochemists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier for the genetic modification technique called CRISPR cemented the popular idea that a new era of precision manipulation of hereditary material had arrived. The award came on the heels of the unauthorized use of the technique by the scientist He Jiankui in 2018 in China in an effort to produce individuals (twin girls in this case) resistant to HIV, and a flurry of studies in early 2020 showing that accuracy in altering DNA in a test tube or bacteria in a culture dish, did not hold up when applied to animal embryos. Attempts to modify single genes in human embryos (not intended to be brought to full-term) in fact led to “large-scale, unintended DNA deletions and rearrangements in the areas surrounding the targeted sequence,” aka “genetic chaos.”

Dr. He was imprisoned, fined, and fired from his academic position in China for his actions, although it is still not clear to what extent the higher-ups at his institute were aware of them. At... see more