Claire Nettleton

Prof. Claire Nettleton

You don’t need to be scientist to understand the importance of CRISPR-Cas9, one of the most revolutionary scientific discoveries in modern times. Co-invented by alumna Jennifer Doudna ’85, CRISPR-Cas9 is a newfound technology for editing or slicing genes that allows scientists to make precise edits to DNA strands, and has tremendous implications, from the development of treatments for genetic diseases to significant ethical questions regarding “designer babies” and other potential controversial uses.

And the implications will undoubtedly reach beyond science. Pomona College Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Claire Nettleton is organizing the daylong symposium “Viral Culture: How CRISPR Genome Editing and the Microbiome are Reshaping Humanity and the Humanities” starting at 9 a.m. on Friday, April 27 at Honnold/Mudd Library Founder’s Room (800 N. Dartmouth Ave., Claremont). The symposium will bring together a variety of experts exploring “the aesthetic and utilitarian merits of this technology but to also evaluate its ethical implications.”

In this Q&A, Nettleton, who is a scholar in 19th and 20th century French, explains her own journey exploring the interdisciplinary connection between this scientific discovery and the humanities.

How did the idea for an interdisciplinary conference on CRISPR originate?

The idea originated when I decided to take a freshman biology class a few months ago. I was definitely the only French professor in my Intro to Biology course! I was completing final edits for my book The Artist as Animal in Nineteenth Century France and wanted to better understand differences between Darwin's theory of evolution and previous earlier theories by French scientists such as Lamarck and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Evolutionary science was a major influence to writers and artists of nineteenth century France, from Balzac to Degas, who were inspired by our connection to nonhuman species. 

When I learned about CRISPR and the microbiome in this class, I drew immediate connections to aesthetics, fiction and post-humanistic thought, a focus on going beyond traditional constructs of the "human," as a singular individual who is superior to all other forms of life. Research on the microbiome, the billions of microorganisms in a body, shatter the notion of a unified, uniquely human self. Furthermore, CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, co-invented by Pomona alum Jennifer Doudna, relies upon the ancient immune system in bacterial DNA that contains snippets of viral DNA. This system, which has been used for purposes varying from preventing genetic disease to encoding images and film, blurs the boundaries between organic and inorganic entities, eukaryotic and prokaryotic organisms, as well as scientific and artistic innovation. 

The aim of this symposium, and one role that the humanities and arts can play in general, is to not only explore the aesthetic and utilitarian merits of this technology but to also evaluate its ethical implications. CRISPR kits are cheap, easily available and virtually unregulated. The technology has stirred fear of designer babies and raised questions of what constitutes a "disease" or a "genetic error."  A CRISPR rat-mouse and human pig-embryo have already been made, and other scientists are using CRISPR to bring back the woolly mammoth. As a scholar of animal studies, literature and art, I created this interdisciplinary symposium, along with Harvey Mudd Professor Rachel Mayeri and keynote speaker Charissa Terranova, to discuss the potential merits and dangers of this groundbreaking technology, which has created a new paradigm for humanity and the humanities.

As a scholar of 19th and 20th century  French, what are the connections between CRISPR and your research?

The symposium will feature a talk to my students in French and another talk in English by microbiologist and artist François-Joseph Lapointe, a professor at the University of Montreal, with whom I have discussed the parallels between his incredible images of the microbiome to the literature of Zola and Baudelaire.

My talk at the symposium will be on Harvard researchers Seth Shipman and George Church's recent experiment to use CRISPR to encode Edweard Muybridge's short film of a galloping horse (1887) in bacterial DNA. They successfully reproduced the film in the bacteria's offspring and played it back with 93 percent accuracy. I will be discussing the implications of this experiment for the field of animal studies and cinema studies.  Because the human eye and traditional photography could not capture the motion of a horse with its feet off the ground, Muybridge invented the zoopraxiscope, an early projector, which spun around an edited sequence of images. This process has many parallels with gene editing, which relies on altering the sequences of nucleotides.

In addition, I draw upon Akira Lippit's claim in Electric Animal that Muybridge's film illustrates the dominance of technological artifice in the post-industrial era and the power of art and cinema to reanimate animals in their disappearance. My talk at the symposium will examine this phenomenon in the age of CRISPR, during which scientists rely upon microbes to revive species and works of art.

However, this new life is merely an approximation—as scientists such as Church are using CRISPR to resurrect the woolly mammoth. Others are creating hybrid cross-species creations and even planning a Jurassic Park-style wild animal park and safari filled with previously extinct animals. One could even argue that the Muybridge experiment is an imposition of human dominance into the very DNA of bacteria. This paper will thus conclude with a call to action to humanistic animal scholars to evaluate the ethics of such experimentation.    

What does CRISPR mean for the world beyond science? How will it change the humanities and art?

If CRISPR truly succeeds in eliminating genetic disease, it will impact us all. Imagine a world without genetic disease as we know it. Granted, we would have a whole new set of problems, some of them potentially terrifying, but imagine if your friends or family would not be at risk for Huntington's Disease, Cystic Fibrosis or certain kinds of cancer. The cultural products of such an era would inevitably change as well and would illustrate other pressing concerns: particularly regarding issues of environmental and genetic manipulation, ethics, eugenics and the misuse of technology. What was most interesting to me in researching this conference was to discover that contemporary art can serve as a public health announcement and historical and science fiction can serve as a warning against the problems of biological interference. 

For example, in our CRISPR panel, artist Anna Dumitriu will be speaking from the United Kingdom via Skype about her "Make Do and Mend" exhibition. This artist altered bacteria using CRISPR to its pre-antibiotic state and stained a wartime suit, commemorating the first use of penicillin, to make a commentary about antibiotic resistance and to warn against the overuse of antibiotics. On the same panel, my husband Justin Slosky will be speaking about the H.G. Wells novel The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) as a precursor to CRISPR to warn against the misuse of biotechnological intervention.