September 9th, 2019

Jacob Kronenberg kayaking with his mom, Heidi.

           Working with genetic engineering means I have to field a lot of questions when I’m home for the holidays. My health-conscious mother always makes sure to buy organic, free-range, “chemical-free” products, so when food labeled GMO-free started popping up, she made sure to get that too. In the produce section at Whole Foods I’d hear, “Jake, can you believe what those scientists do, with all this unnatural, genetically-modified Frankenstein crap they’re trying to feed us? When I was little, we just had regular strawberries and regular corn, none of these humongous GMO plants. Not to mention how Big Pharma is making mutant drugs to put in people’s bodies… C’mon, you’re a scientist now, what do you think of it?”

           This is a loaded question. All scientists are ambassadors to the community, and it’s important to dispel myths about our fields, especially when it comes to widely misunderstood topics. From zombie movies to GATTACA, genetic engineering has always been painted in a dystopic light. It also doesn’t help that agricultural use of GMOs doesn’t exactly have a clean record. Chemical-resistant crops have encouraged the use of harmful pesticides, most famously Roundup, and many large ag-tech companies have aggressive policies gatekeeping access to their designer crops. With information and misinformation obscuring knowledge of science, it can be tough to know what to say.

           I tell people who ask my thoughts on genetic engineering not to write off a whole discipline because of a few groups. GMO crops like golden rice can improve access to nutrition in developing countries and don’t pose much harm as long as they’re well managed. Besides, genetic engineering has always been about more than just crops. My favorite example of genetic engineering to bring up is the breakthrough discovery that allowed insulin to be mass-produced in bioreactors. Insulin is a life-saving drug for millions of people and it’s thanks to a team of genetic engineers who spliced insulin genes into E. coli and S. cerevisiae that it’s so accessible. I hear people criticize bioengineering as being unnatural and unhuman, but most of our research focuses on treating diseases and improving people’s quality of life. What’s more human than that?

           It’s important for scientists as well as the public to remember that every scientific discovery can have a good side and a bad side. While a lot of non-scientists are overly pessimistic about unfamiliar advances in genetic engineering, some scientists are overly optimistic. We tend to think that science is just the pursuit of truth, but it’s not that simple.. Along with reminding others that science is a force for good, we need to remind ourselves to think ethically so we can keep it that way. It’s important to reflect at every step of the way about how advances can affect the world at large. I think we all have a lot to learn from conversations like these.


—Jacob Kronenberg