Surreal artwork in the hotel lobby—a gorilla peeking out of a peeled orange, smoking a cigarette; an astronaut riding a cyborg-giraffe—was the backdrop for bombshell news rocking the world. In November 2018 Hong Kong's Le Méridien Cyberport hotel became the epicenter of controversy about Jiankui He, a Chinese researcher who was staying there when a journalist revealed he had created the world's first “edited” babies. Select experts were gathering in the hotel for the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing—a meeting that had been called to deliberate about the future of the human species. As CNN deemed the experiment “monstrous,” as heated discussions took place in labs and living rooms around the globe, Dr. He sat uncomfortably on a couch in the lobby.
Jiankui He was trying to explain himself to Jennifer Doudna, the chemist at UC Berkeley who is one of the pioneers behind CRISPR, a new genetic engineering tool. Doudna had predicted that CRISPR would be used to direct the evolution of our species, writing, “We possess the ability to edit not only the DNA of every living human but also the DNA of future generations.” As He went through his laboratory protocol, describing how he had manipulated the genes of freshly fertilized human eggs with CRISPR, Doudna shook her head. She knew that this moment might be coming someday, but she imagined that it would be in the far future. Amidst the bustle of hotel guests, science fiction began to settle into the realm of established fact.
I was checking in to Le Méridien as the story broke, and first heard rumors about He's babies while chatting in the elevator with other summit delegates. We had come to Hong Kong to discuss the science, ethics, and governance of CRISPR and an assortment of lesser-known tools for tinkering with DNA. Struggling to overcome intense jet lag—fresh offplanes from Europe, the United States, and other parts of Asia—we listened to speculation in the hotel's hallways while swimming through reality, caught between waking and dreaming.
Opening the door to my hotel room, a luxury suite courtesy of the US National Academy of Sciences, I hunted for reliable sources of information online. I had been invited to speak on the research ethics panel, after Jiankui He, so I needed to play catch-up, fast.