Gene Editing Is Easy—And A Crime—In This New Techno Thriller Book
Welcome to the SciFri Book Club about Upgrade by Blake Crouch. There’s lots of ways to participate: Read the book, listen to our interview with the author, join our online community space, or send a voice message at (646) 767-6532 or on the SciFri VoxPop app.
Logan Ramsay wakes up one morning and feels different. It’s not allergies, and it’s not the flu. If anything, he feels sharper: He needs less sleep, and can multitask and read at lightning speed.
What’s going on with him? It turns out his genome has been hacked: tiny changes were made to his DNA to make him a bit of a superhuman. But at what cost?
This is the plot of Upgrade, Science Friday’s next book club pick, and a new science fiction novel that mixes real science concepts—notably CRISPR—with a fast-paced plot. It’s written by author Blake Crouch, who was inspired to write the book in part because of a Science Friday appearance in 2016. It’s also our current book club pick.
Blake joins Ira to discuss a future where gene editing is used to hack drugs, people, and animals, and how far off we are from the book’s climate disaster surveillance state.
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Blake Crouch is the author of Dark Matter and Upgrade. He’s based in Chicago, Illinois.
IRA FLATOW: Imagine you wake up one morning, and something feels different. No, it’s not your allergies. It’s not COVID. If anything, you feel sharper. You need less sleep. You can multitask and read at lightning speed. What’s really going on with you? Turns out your genome has been hacked. Tiny changes have been made to your DNA to make you a bit of a superhuman, but at what cost?
This is the plot of a new science fiction novel that mixes real science concepts like CRISPR with a fast-paced detective story. It’s all woven artfully together by my guest, Blake Crouch, author of this new book called Upgrade. You may recall his last appearance with us about his past book, Dark Matter. Welcome back to Science Friday.
BLAKE CROUCH: So happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. I want to begin by playing a little clip from the last time you were on SciFri back in 2016, talking about Dark Matter. And you were wondering out loud what your next book would be.
BLAKE CROUCH: I’m really interested to dig in on something new that piques my curiosity. In fact, that’s where I’m at right now in terms of figuring out my next book, looking for that special thing that just checks the box in my head that makes me want to dive in and spend a few days–
IRA FLATOW: I know what it is. I know what it is.
BLAKE CROUCH: Oh, tell me.
IRA FLATOW: It’s CRISPR.
BLAKE CROUCH: CRISPR?
IRA FLATOW: You know what CRISPR is?
BLAKE CROUCH: No, I’ve never heard of it.
IRA FLATOW: Ugh, CRISPR is the latest technology to edit genes. You can–
BLAKE CROUCH: Ooh.
IRA FLATOW: –splice and dice genes. They’re even talking about creating life forms now, synthetic life forms with this–
BLAKE CROUCH: Oh, my goodness.
IRA FLATOW: –new tool. It sounds, Blake, like our conversation may have sparked an interest in the topic.
BLAKE CROUCH: So do I owe you royalties on this book or something?
IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] No, just a little asterisk. That’s all.
BLAKE CROUCH: It was really fortunate that I got to come on SciFri back for Dark Matter. And the idea of writing a gene editing thriller was sort of circling my wheelhouse, but I hadn’t done any research. And I didn’t know what CRISPR was.
And once I started– I’ll be honest, once I started digging into it, I said, god, that looks like a lot of research. And I didn’t write this book next. I wrote a different one, Recursion. But after I finished Recursion, I said to myself, it’s time. If you’re not going to bite the bullet and jump into this, when are you ever going to do it? So thank you for the inspiration.
IRA FLATOW: Well, it’s my pleasure. We’re full service here at Science Friday.
BLAKE CROUCH: Well, I would expect you to have my next book–
IRA FLATOW: Oh, goodness.
BLAKE CROUCH: –idea by the end of our talk.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, good. I had better start thinking. Let’s start off speaking of our talk with a synopsis of this book, which we were already talking about it being about gene editing. And it’s a bit frightening. Give us a little thumbnail of what goes on.
BLAKE CROUCH: Sure. The protagonist of the book is a gentleman named Logan Ramsey. He’s an agent with this fictional government agency called the Gene Protection Agency. And they’re tasked with policing gene experimentation, because in the world of the book, we’re living in this post-disaster moment in time. There’s this horrible event called the Great Starvation. It killed about 200 million people.
And it was actually Logan’s mother, Miriam, who, while doing some gene research and editing in China, accidentally unleashed this leaf blight that reprogrammed the breadbasket crops of the world. And as a result, famine hit. And he’s working for this gene agency, trying to make amends, trying to find some atonement, when he is exposed on a raid of a suspected dark lab to something that might just be modifying his genome.
IRA FLATOW: Whoa. And that’s all because there was a law called the Gene Protection Act, as you say, that has outlawed all private and university genetic research. Gene editing is a federal crime.
BLAKE CROUCH: That’s right. That’s right. I mean, there are some laws today. Congress banned germline gene editing a number of years ago. So it is still a highly regulated field of research, even now. What I’m imagining has taken those regulations and really ratcheted them down.
IRA FLATOW: It sounds like you’re taking on a Margaret Atwood sort of attitude about this, that you’re not talking about science fiction. She refuses to call her work science fiction because it’s all possible, right?
BLAKE CROUCH: That’s right.
IRA FLATOW: And what you’re talking about is all possible.
BLAKE CROUCH: I don’t really even know how much longer I could consider myself a science fiction writer because I do feel like we’re living in the future now. I feel like the future is sort of here. And a lot of the technologies that interest me and that are in my books are they’re here. Maybe we don’t have the full mastery of them as the characters do in my books. But they’re right around the corner.
And I think it’s important, especially with something like gene editing, which is, hands down, the most extraordinary discovery of our time. Not just of our time– probably in human history. More than splitting the atom, more than anything else, the most extraordinary discovery of our time, because it’s tinkering with the source code of life and create new creatures. We can rewrite what it means to be human.
And I think it’s important that we start thinking about this stuff. I mean, when I was on your show a few years ago, I had not heard of CRISPR. I wonder how many people in your audience have heard of CRISPR. Probably more because of– it’s a science podcast or a science show. But I think that the average person out there, yeah, was like me and had heard of gene editing, but didn’t really understand how extraordinary and how close we are to achieving some of these wild, wild feats of science.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and you describe some of them, because a lot of the scientists are– there are a lot of scientists who are the criminals in your book because they’re breaking that law. And they have all kinds of genetic crimes. They hacked cannabis and heroin, you say. They’ve made designer pets, spider silks, and clothes, even designer bugs that could be used as weapons to attack people you don’t like.
BLAKE CROUCH: That’s right.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, I never thought of that. But that really is scary.
BLAKE CROUCH: It’s terrifying. And it was interesting. As I was really getting into the weeds of writing this book and going down the research path, my subject matter expert continually pushed me to actually think bigger, to think more terrifying. His name is Dr. Michel Wiles. Dr. Wiles would say, no, you can go bigger, actually. What’s on the horizon is much more terrifying than what you’re imagining.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case you’re just joining us, I’m talking to Blake Crouch about his new book, Upgrade. What’s interesting is that most of the criminals in your book are scientists, right? Because they’re running afoul of this law. And they’re doing their science, and a lot of it is bad. Did you get any pushback from scientists who say, you’re painting such a bad picture of science, we don’t like that?
BLAKE CROUCH: One of the things that I was very sensitive to in writing Upgrade was that I don’t want to paint science as, especially geneticists who are doing this amazing work, I don’t want to paint them with a negative brush. I want to call out that it has a potential to give us longevity. It has the potential to wipe out disease. It has the potential to solve food supply problems. But it also has some real downsides, some real terrifying possibilities that need to be addressed.
One of the big moments for me, as I was coming up with this book, was reading Jennifer Doudna’s A Crack in Creation. Dr. Doudna is one of the co-creators of CRISPR. And Dr. Doudna talks in this book about having this nightmare soon after she had discovered CRISPR that Hitler had gotten his hands on it, and imagining what that might wreak on the world. And I thought, well, I mean, if Dr. Doudna is this terrified of the downside potential of this technology, shouldn’t we all be? So I think it is a fine line of the possibilities and the drawbacks. And it’s a conversation I think that we need to be having as a species.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and what are the lines about? Who makes the decisions? Who makes the policy decisions? Who judges what you can genetically engineer? And a lot of times, as you point that out in your book– and I’ll read a line from it– “The ones that hurt were the raids on real scientists, those who’d been doing groundbreaking work for all humankind when governments panicked and made it practically impossible to be a genetic engineer.”
BLAKE CROUCH: It’s something you can imagine happening. One of the inspirations for the Gene Protection Act was what happened in America after 9/11. After 9/11, there was this big recoil that came in the form of the Patriot Act that was, quote unquote, “designed to protect us.” But it was also became a land grab for civil liberties. And I like introducing the parallel with the Gene Protection Act because I think a lot of times, governments do have massive overreactions. And pure science would definitely be on the chopping block in a scenario like I’ve presented in the book.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, do you think there are other technologies besides gene editing that are ripe for overreach and possibly good subjects to write about?
BLAKE CROUCH: Oh, for sure. I think the way that we are handing over our agency and choices to artificial intelligence is pretty scary. You order an Uber. I was ordering an Uber a couple of days ago and texting with the driver. And the app was giving me options to say, hey, be right there, or I’m running late. And it seems innocuous. It seems simple. It’s made to make our lives just a little bit easier.
But I thought, what happens if you keep escalating that technology? What happens when AI knows us so well that it’s communicating to our loved ones for us on our behalf, just to make it easier? Where does that slippery slope lead, as we continue to turn over the keys of agency and autonomy to data, the big tech? I mean, we’re already doing it right now. We’re already so compromised. I think that’s another big place where technology is really going to change what it means to be human in the coming decades.
IRA FLATOW: What happens when the singularity arrives?
BLAKE CROUCH: Oh, Ira, I mean, that’s–
IRA FLATOW: Here’s your next book. We’ve got your next book scoped out right here.
BLAKE CROUCH: There it is. There it is.
IRA FLATOW: There it is. All Right. We have run out of time. Blake, thank you always for taking the time to be with us today.
BLAKE CROUCH: Thank you so much for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Blake. Blake Crouch, author of the book, Upgrade. He was connecting to us from Chicago. And the SciFri Book Club, we’ll be reading Blake’s new book this August. And to find out more about how you can join our book club and to enter to win a free copy of your own, go to sciencefriday.com/bookclub.