The complexity of the gene and the precision of CRISPR : What is the gene that is being edited?

Shah, Esha; Ludwig, David; Macnaghten, Phil


The rapid development of CRISPR-based gene editing has been accompanied by a polarized governance debate about the status of CRISPR-edited crops as genetically modified organisms. This article argues that the polarization around the governance of gene editing partly reflects a failure of public engagement with the current state of research in genomics and postgenomics. CRISPR-based gene-editing technology has become embedded in a narrow narrative about the ease and precision of the technique that presents the gene as a stable object under technological control. By tracing the considerably destabilized scientific understanding of the gene in genomics and postgenomics, this article highlights that this publicly mediated ontology strategically avoids positioning the “ease of CRISPR-based editing” in the wider context of the “complexity of the gene.” While this strategic narrowness of CRISPR narratives aims to create public support for gene-editing technologies, we argue that it stands in the way of socially desirable anticipatory governance and open public dialogue about societal promises and the unintended consequences of gene editing. In addressing the polarization surrounding CRISPR-based editing technology, the article emphasizes the need for engagement with the complex state of postgenomic science that avoids strategic simplifications of the scientific literature in promoting or opposing the commercial use of the gene-editing technology.