Sample analysis tubes. (Reuters/Stefan Wermuth)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week, we’re talking about transhumanism. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Ellen Jorgensen holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology and spent 30 years in the biotech industry before founding the nonprofit Genspace, the world’s first community lab.

CRISPR is a controversial new technology for genetically engineering cells and making those changes heritable. It and other new gene-editing technologies have both raised hopes of speedier biomedical breakthroughs and concerns that they could eventually enable the modification of healthy humans. But what is not generally known is that the use of CRISPR as a research tool has already become so widespread that even community labs have access to it – and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

For those not familiar with the term, community labs (also known as bio-hackerspace) are a relatively new phenomenon: grassroots, nonprofit organizations that maintain laboratory facilities open to the general public, with a mission to make the practice of biotechnology available to all. Anyone can come in and work on a self-funded project for a very low membership fee as long as it falls within generally accepted guidelines for biosafety. Within these spaces, citizen scientists have access to many of the same technologies used in university and corporate labs, including CRISPR. The movement has grown rapidly — in 2013 there were six groups, while today there are nearly 30. In 2014, the Wilson Center released a report saying that half of practitioners had joined the citizen science movement in the last 6 months before their survey.

Will this have an impact on the transhumanist movement? That is, will it influence how people advocate the use of bio-technology to enhance the human species?  Lately, I’ve been fielding queries from the media regarding CRISPR use at my community lab, Genspace, and it’s become obvious that reporters are hoping to find someone attempting to genetically modify themselves or perhaps create a replicant or two. As far as I know, it is not technically illegal in the Unites States to genetically engineer yourself, but as in most endeavors, the devil is in the details.

Editing a higher multicellular organism such as a human is vastly more complicated than altering single cells in a petri dish. CRISPR has been hailed as a breakthrough because of its ease of use and low cost, but these are relative to what was previously available. It’s still pretty hard to tinker with anything more complicated than a microbe, and of course we haven’t the slightest idea what genetic changes would be necessary to add wings or extra arms.

Technically, delivering gene-editing technologies through the cell’s natural defenses and into the genome is always the biggest hurdle. Current gene therapies in adult organisms are confined to medically accessible tissues like bone marrow. Wholesale editing resulting in a heritable change in DNA code is only possible by manipulating early-stage embryos, so it is unlikely anyone will be doing this as a DIY project — or would seriously want to.

I take heart in the fact that, while conventional gene therapy is growing as a medical practice, people do not attempt it in the comfort of their own homes. I don’t think the availability of CRISPR will change this. There is a deep-seated instinct for self-preservation warning us that, unlike an implanted device or machine-to-brain interface, genetic editing means seriously messing with your own source code, with potentially irreversible and unknown results.

So why allow something as powerful as CRISPR to be used in a community lab? The first reason is that it is a very useful tool for run-of-the-mill experiments that involve engineering and studying lab-grown cells. For example, we can knock out genes in cell cultures and learn more about their function by doing so, or even create strains of harmless bacteria that bio-artists can use to make colorful fluorescent proteins. Just because it could potentially be put to work for “edgier” purposes does not mean that citizen-scientists should be prevented from using it.

Second, there is a value in learning how gene-editing technology works firsthand by manipulating cells in a safe environment. The public is immensely curious about CRISPR. Our informational workshops are always packed; in fact, we started running them because we received so many requests. Empowerment through hands-on knowledge is particularly important for those — such as women and African Americans — who have not been served well by genetics discussions in the past. Public forums where scientists attempt to “educate” from a position of more knowledge can sometimes create hostility and an “us vs. them” dynamic, whereas participatory science does not.

At Genspace, we believe the best way to understand biotechnology is to experience it through practice. CRISPR and other yet-to-be discovered genome editing technologies will be at the heart of the transhumanism conversation. Understanding will be crucial as society debates the social, moral and ethical implications of modifying our DNA and contemplating human enhancement.

Explore these other perspectives:

Charles T. Rubin: Transhumanists are searching for a dystopian future

David Vincent Kimel: In defense of transhumanism

James J. Hughes: Soon we’ll use science to make people more moral

Ronald Bailey: Technology won’t undermine human dignity. Fear of change will.