The innovative strategy is a testament to the power of CRISPR, but Esvelt’s really big idea isn’t about tinkering with genes. Instead, he wants to edit the scientific enterprise itself. He argues that scientists are too used to working behind closed doors, and too ineffective at anticipating the consequences of their research—and the consequences, in an age where biotechnology allows us to dramatically alter the world around us, could be catastrophic. The only solution is a kind of radical transparency, which Esvelt is practicing in Nantucket. By setting an example, he wants to change the way modern science is done so that it’s safer, more mindful of unintended consequences, and more respectful of the communities it inevitably affects.
Esvelt is still years away from getting his CRISPR-based vaccine to work. But well before he started developing it, he went to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, talked to residents, and attended town halls. He set up a governance plans for the residents to oversee the project, should they decide to let it go ahead. He explained his strategy, asked for opinions, and—crucially—listened to the responses.
For example, he originally proposed spreading the anti-Lyme genes using a tool called a gene drive. Typically, any given gene has a 50-50 chance of being passed to the next generation. Gene drives push those odds up to almost 100 percent, allowing traits to zoom through wild populations with incredible speed. (Here’s a graphic explaining how they work.) These drives occur naturally, but in the era of CRISPR, scientists can deliberately engineer them. Thus far, they’ve only done so in laboratories, and on organisms like fruit flies and yeast. But various groups are planning to use gene drives in the wild, to render mosquitoes resistant to malaria or to control invasive rats on islands.
Using a gene drive, Esvelt could ensure that his anti-Lyme genes spread very quickly through wild mice. But once such a drive is unleashed in the wild, it would spread across an entire wild population, altering white-footed mice wherever they exist. This isn’t something to be done lightly, so Esvelt has been developing ways of containing this awesome power. He can tweak the drives so that they lose steam over time, or so they can be corralled within specific regions.
But no matter what he does, these drives still depend on CRISPR, and CRISPR depends on enzymes that come from bacteria. To make the drives work, Esvelt would need to add a few bacterial genes to the DNA of his engineered mice. And the citizens of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard weren’t comfortable with that. “They wanted the mice to be 100 percent mice,” Esvelt says.
It’s a weird objection. Like all other animals, mice are already home to legions of microbes, and they have domesticated bacteria—mitochondria—in their cells, providing them with energy. But the citizens made a choice, and Esvelt respects it. “This work can only move forward if embraced by the community,” he says. “They are the ones in charge. It’s their environment.” So: no gene drive. He’ll simply let the engineered mice spread their anti-Lyme genes in the usual slow way.