November 01, 2021

By Alaina Uricheck ’24

Genetic engineering can be ethically fraught, said Sam Sternberg, assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University, but with the correct oversight, technology like CRISPR can be used to improve lives.

Sternberg delivered Susquehanna’s 2021 Claritas Distinguished Lecture in the Sciences, Rewriting the Code of Life with CRISPR. CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat. The first CRISPR sequences were discovered in 1987 when scientists noticed repeating DNA sequences in various bacteria and attempted to learn what it meant. Discovery of these sequences led to the development of gene-editing technology that has revolutionized the life sciences.

“The technology has been used by scientists in many ways, such as to confer adaptive viral immunity, improve agriculture, repair DNA mutations and a variety of other applications,” Sternberg said.

Sternberg stressed the importance of considering all safety, ethical, and regulatory concerns that have arisen as a result of these technological advances. Pandora’s box has been opened, he said, and what has been let loose into the world needs to be thoughtfully managed, as does the conversation around it. Sternberg acknowledge that many people have heard dramatic news stories about “designer babies” being developed in labs, but he explained that “most work being done with CRISPR is ethical and the attention these stories get is a result of sensationalism rather than facts.”

Sternberg also mentioned that the discovery of CRISPR demonstrates the importance of basic scientific and curiosity-driven research.

“There is no way to anticipate where the next big scientific discovery will come from,” Sternberg said to the science majors gathered before him. “Be curious and find the answers to your questions, no matter how small they may be.”

The Distinguished Visitor Program at Susquehanna University was endowed by George E. ’64 and Margaret Lauver ’66 Harris to support seminars, residencies or lectures by leaders in education, government or business on topics in the public interest. This series brings an accomplished scholar in the sciences to Susquehanna’s campus annually for a public lecture typically held in the fall of the academic year.