Jamie Metzl discusses human genetic engineering | VailDaily.com
John O’Neill
Special to the Daily

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Jamie Metzl discusses human genetic engineering

VAIL — Genetic modification in humans, once the stuff of science fiction, has all but leapt off the page as not only a viable form of human transformation, but an impending one.

"It is as if we wanted to travel to the moon and have already invented the rocket," said Jamie Metzl. "We just haven't quite figured out how to land once we get there."

Metzl is a senior fellow for technology and national security at the Atlantic Council and chief strategy officer of the genetics biotechnology company ORIG3N. He has served on the U.S. National Security Council, State Department, Senate Foreign Relations Committee and with the United Nations in Cambodia. He is a graduate of Brown, Oxford and Harvard universities, an internationally syndicated columnist, a regular guest on CNN and other media, and an Ironman triathlete and ultrmarathoner. He's also written three books, the latest of which, "Genesis Code," came out this past November.

On Monday, Metzl will discuss genetic engineering as not only one of the greatest opportunities of our generation, but also one of the greatest challenges. The program takes place at 6:30 p.m. at the Grand View in Vail.

“Genetic engineering will be critical to helping us live healthier, longer, more robust lives. But the same technologies will also make forms of genetic modification possible that some people will ... raise critical questions related to equity, diversity and the role of humans in altering our basic code of life.“Jamie MetzlChief strategy officer, ORIG3N

Predicting a genetic arms race

Metzl first became interested in bioengineering over a decade ago, after he served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. Metzl's NSC boss, Richard Clarke, had been obsessed with issues of terrorism and cybercrime at that time, but was only seen as a visionary years later following the 9/11 attacks. When Metzl left the White House, he started thinking more about the critical issues that, such as terrorism before 9/11, the country was failing to appreciate. The genetics and biotechnology revolutions quickly rose to the top of his list.

After developing strong ideas for what needed to be done to prevent a global genetic arms race, he started writing articles on the subject for various policy and foreign affairs journals. In 2008, he was called as the lead witness in a congressional hearing on human genetic modification technologies.

"Today, the speed of change in genetic science is phenomenal," Metzl said. "When I first started thinking about this 10 years ago, I made logical inferences on where the technology would go and what it would mean. The actual technology has progressed even faster than I'd imagined. Right now, we have the technology to rewrite the genetic code of human beings if we choose to do so. It is an awesome power. But while the science has progressed exponentially, public understanding of it and the policy and legal framework has only moved forward glacially. This creates a real mismatch between what we're capable of doing and what we have the capacity to do wisely."

As a foreign policy expert, Metzl also appreciates and has written about the significant foreign affairs issues associated with the genetics revolution.

"People within and between societies think differently about how much can or should be done to alter what they perceive as being 'natural,'" Metzl said. "China, for example, has been the most aggressive in exploring precision gene editing technologies in human embryos. If China or another country began enhancing its population and the United States did not, how might we respond?"

Metzl draws a parallel with the divisive nature of the global fight over genetically modified crops. If people are going nuts over GM crops, then how will they feel about GM humans?

"Genetic engineering will be critical to helping us live healthier, longer, more robust lives," Metzl said. "But the same technologies will also make forms of genetic modification possible that some people will very likely be uncomfortable with, and raise critical questions related to equity, diversity and the role of humans in altering our basic code of life."

Starting the dialogue

Genetic technologies can be used for good and for bad, Metzl said. For him, this is why it is so important to promote and inform a national and global dialogue on this subject.

"The genetics revolution has already begun," Metzl said. "We must now deploy the best of our values and our thoughtful wisdom to help ensure the technology is developed as responsibly as possible. Think about this like you would nuclear energy. Most of us don't want to disavow nuclear energy. We just aspire to maximize its beneficial impact and minimize its potential for harm."

As part of his effort to help jump-start a broader conversation on the genetics revolution, Metzl has written his novel, "Genesis Code." The fast-paced thriller deals with issues of human genetic enhancement in the context of a future U.S.-China rivalry.

"I started really thinking about what it will mean when genetically modified humans start showing up, not just from a policy perspective but also a human perspective," Metzl said. "This is a very personal issue for all of us. That's why 'Genesis Code' is, at its core, a love story. It tries to deal with the essence of what it means to be human."

John O'Neill is the marketing director for the Vail Symposium. Send comments about this story to mwong@vaildaily.com

If you go …

What: Homo Sapiens 2.0: Genetic Enhancement, Ethics and the Future of Humanity

Who: Jamie Metzl

When: Monday beginning with 6:30 p.m. reception and 7 p.m. presentation

Where: The Grand View in Lionshead

How much: $25 in advance | $35 at the door | $10 students, teachers, VVYPA Members

More info: Visit http://www.VailSymposium.org or call 970-476-0954 to register