Early on an unusually blustery day in June, Kevin Esvelt climbed aboard a ferry at Woods Hole, bound for Nantucket Island. Esvelt, an assistant professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was on his way to present to local health officials a plan for ridding the island of one of its most persistent problems: Lyme disease. He had been up for much of the night working on his slides, and the fatigue showed. He had misaligned the buttons on his gray pin-striped shirt, and the rings around his deep-blue eyes made him look like a sandy-haired raccoon.
Esvelt, who is thirty-four, directs the “sculpting evolution” group at M.I.T., where he and his colleagues are attempting to design molecular tools capable of fundamentally altering the natural world. If the residents of Nantucket agree, Esvelt intends to use those tools to rewrite the DNA of white-footed mice to make them immune to the bacteria that cause Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. He and his team would breed the mice in the laboratory and then, as an initial experiment, release them on an uninhabited island. If the number of infected ticks begins to plummet, he would seek permission to repeat the process on Nantucket and on nearby Martha’s Vineyard.
North Dakota is not known for its pigeons. Or forests, for that matter. The state bird is the western meadowlark, a mellifluous yellow songbird often seen singing on fence posts. Such posts substitute for trees in much of North Dakota. The state is primarily covered in what was once short-grass prairie but is now mostly farms embedded in a human-made grassland, exceptions being the Badlands and a swath of boreal forest in the far north near Canada.
Yet it was near Williston, the heart of western North Dakota’s new boom-and-bust oil patch, that Ben Novak first fell in love with Ectopistes migratorius—the passenger pigeon, a bird that rarely graced this region, if ever.
In 2012, Jennifer Dounda and her colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier published an article showing how a specific gene drive, known as CRISPR-Cas9, can be used to “drive” certain genetic properties through wild populations with astonishing ease. Gene drives are natural genetic systems that allow certain genes to bypass the rules of inheritance and thereby make themselves more likely to be passed along. The CRISPR system, modeled after a bacterial immune system, can be used to target and cut out specific sections of DNA (genes) and replace it with another desired sequence. While gene drives have been known about for a long time, the CRISPR system is a landmark discovery because for the first time geneticists have a tool that allows them to easily manipulate the genetic composition of wild populations.
Uberisation is the latest buzzword to describe the disruption of industries by slick digital platforms connecting workers with specific tasks or services. So where does science stand in the brave new uberised world? For every characteristic of uberisation, there is a parallel in the world of research. This raises the question of whether research uberised before Uber even existed? In this article, EuroScientist, looks into whether science was ahead of its time and explores what we can expect in the future.