The Current

Harvard scientist fears advancements in genetic manipulation 'much more than war'

There are few things more frightening than the spectre of biological warfare — from anthrax to weaponized viruses. We speak with the man being recognized for his pioneering work in having biological weapons banned internationally.

Matthew Meselson played a key role in putting an end to biowarfare

Matthew Meselson received the 2019 Future of Life Award for his role in spearheading an international ban on bioweapons. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Getty images; Matthew Meselson )
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The U.S. scientist who helped place an international ban on biowarfare says he fears technological advancements will open a "Pandora's box" of unknown diseases and genetic modifications that could threaten the essence of humanity.

Matthew Meselson, a professor of molecular biology at Harvard University, explains researchers are just beginning to scratch the surface of human genome studies. This branch of science, which examines the role of chromosomes in the human body, could have implications for altering the structure of a human's DNA, including removing predispositions for genetic anomalies in the womb.

"Given time, biology will advance to the point where things can be done that cannot be defined right now, such as changing the way people think; changing their allegiance; diseases which cannot be cured or treated or prevented; a Pandora's box," he told The Current's guest host Gillian Findlay.

Meselson's work in biology and chemistry dates back half a century to when he spearheaded efforts against chemical and biological weapons. This year he received the Future of Life Award for his role in the Biological Weapons Convention that helped dismantle biowarfare. 

A microscopic view of stained anthrax bacteria in an undated photo from the Command at Fort Detrick, Md. (U.S. Army Medical Research and Development/Getty Images)

What is biowarfare?

Biological warfare is the use of disease as a weapon, like releasing clouds of lethal anthrax spores into the air. It was banned globally in 1975 under the Biological Weapons Convention.

Meselson was working with the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the 1960s, where he studied chemical and biological arms control. This was when he started developing a plan to put an end to the country's continued biological weaponry operations.

"The use of disease — mortal enemy of our species — as a weapon of war is repugnant and dishonourable," he explained.

So he took the issue right to the top.

"I got to know President Nixon's national security adviser Henry Kissinger; my laboratory building was next door to his office building. So I wrote papers for him and visited him occasionally," he told Findlay.

In 1969, U.S. President Richard Nixon ended the all non-defensive bio-weapons operations in America and publicly renounced the practice. Three years later, Nixon signed the Biological Weapons Convention treaty.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon publicly renounced all operations associated with biological warfare. (The Associated Press)

Enter technology

Now, Meselson says his concerns over biological warfare may have waned, but cautions there's something bigger on the horizon.

"Sooner or later I think it's inevitable that mankind will be directing our own evolution," Meselson said, referencing the recent example of a Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, who used genome technology in creating what he calls the world's first genetically edited babies.

The Harvard professor urges today's scientists to resist the re-shaping of the human condition and refocus their research on treasuring humanity and maintaining the qualities that make us who we are — like empathy, virtue and curiosity.

A scientific researcher extracts the RNA from embryonic stem cells in a laboratory, at the Univestiry of Sao Paulo's human genome research center, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (AFP/Getty Images)

"We are only a snapshot in the evolution of our species. So you have to ask, 'Well, what is it we really value in what we are?' … As time goes on, what we should value the most of all is our humanity," he said.

"In my mind, much more than war or deliberate hostile acts, are those things which, over long periods of time, might change what we value most in our humanity."

The biologist drew comparisons between science's power to mould humanity and going sailing.

"[The navigator] doesn't know about what kinds of storms or icebergs might lie ahead," Meselson explained.

"If a ship is just sort of sailing wherever the wind blows, goodness knows where you're going to end up. You have to have some idea to tell the navigator 'head this way, this is the way we want to go.'"

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Émilie Quesnel. Produced by Danielle Carr.

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