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A group of the world’s top scientists and bioethicists just got together to hammer out the goals and limits of 21st-century biotechnology. And some of them really, really don’t agree.

From left: Margaret Atwood, Steven Pinker, and Thierry Magnin.

Ross Deloach

On Tuesday afternoon, roughly 135 scientists, bioethicists, philosophers, lawyers, and policymakers from 25 countries wrapped up the first-ever global summit to carve out a vision for what the future of biotech should — and, crucially, shouldn't — look like.

It was an unusual venue for a gathering of the world's preeminent scientific community: Atlanta's big brick Tabernacle, an old Baptist church now used mostly as a music venue, and covered in swirling purple and red murals. Those attending the two-day summit — called Biotech and the Ethical Imagination, or BEINGS — were charged with a seemingly insurmountable task: to figure out practical and ethical guidelines for a lot of sticky scientific issues, such as egg donations, stem cell research, gene patents, and bioterrorism.

“Science can only pronounce definitively about things that it can measure,” Margaret Atwood, famed science fiction author and one of the event's distinguished faculty members, told BuzzFeed News. “You're getting people from the side of the fuzzily quantifiable values talking to the people who like to be very precise.”

That mix of people from across the spectrum of biotech meant a good amount of confusion, at least at first. The conversations on stage and off were at turns combative and muddled, with many scientists favoring less regulation in the name of scientific progress, and bioethicists imagining dystopian futures in which biotech goes unchecked.

According to the event's organizer, Emory bioethicist Paul Wolpe, the idea for BEINGS had been simmering in his head for nearly a decade — well after the cloning of Dolly the sheep and the sequencing of the human genome brought genetics to the forefront of a national conversation.

But the ethics of genetic technology made headlines again just a month ago, when a storm erupted over a Chinese paper describing the first-ever gene editing done on human embryos, raising fears of so-called designer babies. Scientists from across the world published multiple letters of protest in major journals calling for a halt to such research. But as several commenters at the summit noted, “the genie's out of the bottle.”

From left: Maxine Singer, Norton Zinder, Sydney Brenner, and Paul Berg at Asilomar in 1975.

Courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences

At the famed Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA, about 140 scientists met at a stateside location in northern California to discuss the emerging technologies around genetics — looking at the potential for risks as well as the need to draw lines in the sand.

The Asilomar guidelines concluded that researchers could combine genetic information from different plants and animals, provided they did so with the safety of people and the environment in mind, and also set boundaries for which types of experiments were off-limits. The guidelines were heavily influential in the next 40 years of biotech. But Wolpe noted the difficulties of coming to a similar sort of consensus today.

“Asilomar gathered all of the scientists of the day who could actually do this work,” Wolpe told BuzzFeed News. Now, he added, the biotech industry has grown to include over 1,300 companies, employs over 175,000 people, and rakes in some $300 billion a year. So drawing up a unified consensus statement in 2015 is a tall order.


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