Undiscovered is produced for your ears! Whenever possible, we recommend listening to—not reading—our episodes. Important things like emotion and emphasis are often lost in transcripts. Also, if you are quoting from an Undiscovered episode, please check your text against the original audio as some errors may have occurred during transcription.
ELAH FEDER: I’m Elah.
ANNIE MINOFF: And I’m Annie. And you’re listening to Undiscovered, a podcast about the backstories of science.
ELAH FEDER: This story starts on a porch on Martha’s Vineyard.
ANNIE MINOFF: It’s July, 2016—a beautiful, peak-summer day. And I’m sitting with Bob Rosenbaum and Cheryl Steinberg. We’re looking out over their freshly-cut backyard. And they’re telling me about something that happened to their son Ben.
BOB ROSENBAUM: He wound up coming home one day, and he said, “Something very weird is happening. I can only blink one eye.”
CHERYL STEINBERG: I actually brought him to the eye doctor, and the eye doctor said that what he had was Bell’s Palsy. Because it actually affected the whole side of his face. And I did not know that Bell’s Palsy was related to Lyme disease. But it, it was. So, that’s my education.
ELAH FEDER: You’ve probably heard of Lyme disease. You get it from a tick bite, and usually, it’s not subtle. There’s a big, red, rash in the shape of a bull’s eye. But not always. And if you don’t get that bull’s eye rash? You might not know you have Lyme. You might not treat it. Which is when some really scary symptoms can kick in. Maybe the side of your face is paralyzed, or your knees start to swell up. Or there’s shooting pain in your hands and feet.
ANNIE MINOFF: Ben’s facial paralysis—it went away. But for his dad, Bob, it was the beginning of an all-out war. Against Lyme, and the ticks that carry it.
BOB ROSENBAUM: Well the first thing I do is I spray my clothes and my shoes with a product called permethrin.
ANNIE MINOFF: Permetherin’s an insecticide. Bob uses more of it on his yard, he uses DEET on his skin. And then there’s Spice. <<dog panting>> The family’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
BOB ROSENBAUM: Our dog in many ways is more protected than we are. Number one, the dog gets a Lyme vaccine.
ELAH FEDER: There actually is a Lyme vaccine on the market. It is for dogs. Not for people. And that’s not all Spice gets.
ANNIE MINOFF: Bob squeezes this little packet of insecticide onto her back once a month. He’s got a special dog shampoo…
BOB ROSENBAUM: ...called, can I mention the name of it? “You Tick Me Off.”
ANNIE MINOFF: There’s a spray for when they go out on walks.
<<spray bottle squirt>>
BOB ROSENBAUM: So what is that, 4 different treatments that this pooch gets?
ELAH FEDER: If you’re thinking that Bob’s gone a little overboard here, know that Bob is not alone. Lyme infects at least thirty thousand Americans each year. And that’s the low estimate. It could be ten times that many. And Martha’s Vineyard is at the center of this epidemic.
VINEYARDER 1: I’ve had Lyme disease twice…
VINEYARDER 2: I’m a family of 5, 4 of us have tested positive for Lyme.
VINEYARDER 3: I pulled a tick off one of my children this morning, right?
ANNIE MINOFF: And so into this situation comes Kevin.
KEVIN ESVELT: Kevin Esvelt. I’m an assistant professor at MIT…
ELAH FEDER: Kevin is a scientist with a plan to solve the Vineyard’s Lyme problem, maybe for good. The only catch? No one’s actually tried Kevin’s tactic before. And it raises some pretty thorny ethical questions.
ANNIE MINOFF: Because Kevin’s fix involves permanently changing the genetics of a population of wild animals. By releasing hundreds of thousands of genetically engineered mice onto this island.
ELAH FEDER: Today’s episode: Can Kevin convince an island of a hundred and fifteen thousand people—people who like their lawns organic and their vegetables local—to embrace GMO mice?
ANNIE MINOFF: That’s coming up, on Undiscovered.
ELAH FEDER: Annie, just to be clear, you were the one who got to take this work-sponsored trip to Martha’s Vineyard.
ANNIE MINOFF: It’s great work if you can get it, right? Yeah so a year ago, last July, I was waiting on a ferry dock in Massachusetts. Because Martha’s Vineyard is an island, you have to take the ferry to get there. And that is where I met the scientist Kevin Esvelt. We were standing on the dock, waiting for our ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. It was his first trip.
KEVIN ESVELT:...Vineyard Haven ferry yes? Just making sure…
ANNIE MINOFF: Yes!
ANNIE MINOFF: Kevin is skinny, blond, and young. He’s in his mid-30s. And he calls himself an evolutionary engineer.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah. His lab at MIT has this very -sci-fi sounding name: It’s called the “sculpting evolution group.”
ANNIE MINOFF: And just to be completely on-brand, his laptop background is a portrait of Darwin.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah he sounds like a big science geek—
ANNIE MINOFF: He’s a bit of a science nerd! But Lyme for Kevin, it’s not just a science problem. It’s personal.
KEVIN ESVELT: I live in Newton where we certainly have Lyme disease as well. My wife's a pediatrician, so my kids are not allowed to, in fact, to run freely through the woods. And that's really the iconic image of American childhood. And we can't do that anymore. And that's a tragedy.
ELAH FEDER: A tragedy, but one that Kevin thinks we can solve. By targeting mice. The furry rodents at the root of this problem.
ANNIE MINOFF: Because you get Lyme from a tick bite. But chances are, that tick that bit you? It got infected with the Lyme bacterium when it bit a mouse.
KEVIN ESVELT: Most cases of tick-borne disease come from these mice. If we can alter the mice to make them resistant to tick borne diseases such as Lyme, then we can break the cycle of transmission.
ANNIE MINOFF: If you make the Vineyard’s mice resistant to Lyme, Kevin says you’ve wiped out the major source of Lyme disease on this Island. No infected mice—
KEVIN ESVELT: ...no infected ticks, no infected kids.
ELAH FEDER: Which sounds great.
ANNIE MINOFF: Awesome!
ELAH FEDER: But actually making it happen? Not that easy. First, Kevin and his team would need to genetically engineer a Lyme-resistant mouse. Second: They’d need to breed and release enough of these mice to spread Lyme resistance across the Vineyard’s population of mice.
ANNIE MINOFF: So step one, make super-mice, step two, release super-mice onto the island. Simple two-step process!
ELAH FEDER: Two steps! Great! Now at this point, you might be asking— Well I hope you’re asking, is that even legal? Can you genetically engineer an animal and just, you know, let it loose on the world?
ANNIE MINOFF: And the answer thankfully is no you cannot. So in the U.S. you need federal approval for that kind of thing.
ELAH FEDER: Right. So Kevin has to convince the feds.
ANNIE MINOFF: He’s gonna have to convince the feds. More important? He has to convince Vineyarders that this is a good idea.
ELAH FEDER: And by the way, last time scientists tried to pitch an idea like this? It did not go so great. A cautionary tale, from Key West, Florida.
MICHAEL DOYLE: Okay, very good. Welcome, welcome to the Harvey Government Center here in Key West, Florida…
ELAH FEDER: That’s a guy named Michael Doyle. He’s opening a public meeting in Key West, in March, 2012. Back in 2012, the Keys was coming out of a outbreak of dengue fever. This is a disease that’s spread by mosquitoes. Not surprisingly, the local mosquito control district was looking for new ways to kill mosquitos.
ANNIE MINOFF: So they turned to a British company called Oxitec. Oxitec makes a genetically modified male mosquito that carries a gene that kills its offspring. So the idea is you flood the area with all of these very deadly mosquito dads, and all of the baby mosquitoes die!
ELAH FEDER: Yeah. Keys residents? They were not thrilled about this plan. This, from that 2012 meeting:
KEYS RESIDENT 1: I did not move into this area to be an experiment!
KEYS RESIDENT 2: Robo-franken-mosquitos…
KEYS RESIDENT 3: This breaks my heart to think that you guys have the nerve to come here and do this to our community…
KEYS RESIDENT 4: I for one don’t care about your scientific crap. You’re not gonna cram something down my throat that I don’t want. <<Applause>> I’m no guinea pig!
ELAH FEDER: As you can hear this meeting is a total disaster for Oxitec. For reasons which don’t seem all that mysterious.
ANNIE MINOFF: Nope.
ELAH FEDER: I mean, if I were in this meeting, I would have a few concerns about this!
ANNIE MINOFF: Just like a few questions, like, what is a mosquito’s range actually? Like how far are these things gonna fly?
ELAH FEDER: For me it would be what happens to the ecosystem? There are predators that eat mosquitoes, like bats. What if they don’t have that food supply. What does that change?
ANNIE MINOFF: And the people at this meeting, they asked questions like that. But what really seemed to stick in their craw, the thing they kept coming back to...That guy actually put it perfectly:
KEYS AUDIENCE MEMBER: You’re not going to cram something down my throat that I don’t want.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah. So it was the idea that Oxitec and the Mosquito Control District, they weren’t asking residents’ permission to do this.
ELAH FEDER: Right. In any other experiment— If I was going to be a subject in a medical experiment, for example. You know, they’re testing a new drug on me. I would have to sign a consent form. You know I’d have to sign something that said yes, I agree to be experimented on….
ANNIE MINOFF: I know the risks….
ELAH FEDER: Right. I’m gonna sign on the dotted line. And if they’re going to release this mosquito where I live, where’s the dotted line?
ANNIE MINOFF: And there really wasn’t one at this point. And so Keys residents started putting up these yard signs that said in big, red letters: “NO CONSENT.” So, maybe it is not a big surprise that when I was standing on that dock with Kevin Esvelt, the project that he described to me, sounded a little different than that Key West mosquito project. Kevin was taking a very different tack. First, he says, he’s not telling the Vineyard. He’s asking.
ELAH FEDER: Right. He’s asking for their consent.
ANNIE MINOFF: And not just their consent, actually! He’s asking them to design this experiment with him.
KEVIN ESVELT (ON DOCK): This needs to be a community directed project. That’s really the fundamentals of it. When you’re altering the shared environment, the community needs to make the decisions.
ANNIE MINOFF: So Kevin is making a gamble here. He’s gambling that scientists and citizens can work together. That if scientists go in asking for consent, these community meetings can be collaborative not just combative.
ELAH FEDER: But what it means to get consent from an island with thousands of residents? That’s an open question.
ANNIE MINOFF: And that’s why I was actually on this ferry going to Martha’s Vineyard. To see how that works.So Kevin and his collaborators, they had organized a public meeting at a library on the Vineyard. That’s where we were going on this boat. And there Kevin would get his first shot at explaining the idea.
ELAH FEDER: And Vineyarders are gonna get their chance to let Kevin know what they think of GMO mice.
ANNIE MINOFF: And I have no clue how this is gonna go. I mean, it seems like these days when we talk about gmos it’s mostly in the context of, you know—
ELAH FEDER: How can we keep them out of our food?
ANNIE MINOFF: How can we avoid them in our food. “Are they in my Chipotle burrito?” And Kevin’s embraced a very different idea.
ELAH FEDER: Right. Kevin’s idea is that genetic engineering, it’s not some sinister technology that we have to avoid at all costs. But that it can actually do good in the world. That it can reduce disease, and not just of Lyme but malaria and schistosomiasis.
ANNIE MINOFF: But Kevin’s anti-Lyme plan, it can’t go anywhere unless there’s one community that’s willing to raise its hand and say, you know, “Here. Do this experiment here. Show that this can work.” And Kevin was hoping Vineyarders might be the ones to do it.
KEVIN ESVELT: These are some of the communities that have the highest rates of tick-borne disease in the country. And they are also unusually well-educated, and have a strong tradition of local democracy through town hall meetings. So if you had to choose a place where getting informed consent would be easier than almost anywhere else, this is where you would want to start.
ANNIE MINOFF: Now just how easy, I was not sure.
ELAH FEDER: We should mention this. Around the time that Kevin is gearing up to make his pitch for engineered mice, the Vineyard’s already caught up in a controversy over how natural their island should be. The disagreement? Whether or not to resurface the high school’s playing fields with artificial turf. Here’s how emotional it got at a public meeting:
VINEYARDER 1: Many of us are, you know, trying very hard to move away from plastics, move away from synthetic, move away from artificial…
VINEYARDER 2: I can’t even imagine letting my daughter run around those fields <<starting to cry>>...
ELAH FEDER: Oh jeez.
ANNIE MINOFF: Actually a lot of people at this meeting were fans of the turf. But by the time I was sitting on this ferry with Kevin, plastic grass had prompted thirteen newspaper articles, twenty-one letters to the editor, dueling online petitions with hundreds of signatures, and at least 4 public meetings.
ELAH FEDER: And if that’s the response that astroturf gets, you have to wonder: What chance do GMO mice have?
<<Crowd noises filter in, someone taps the microphone>>
ANNIE MINOFF: The first thing to know about this meeting on the Vineyard is it is packed. There are about a hundred plastic chairs in this library conference room. Just about every one is filled. And Kevin’s up front, slide advancer in hand.
KEVIN ESVELT (AT MEETING): ...And of course thank you all for coming and listening to this proposal. This is, of course, about a local problem, that is tick-borne disease. And we're here because we have a potential way of addressing the problem at its source…
ELAH FEDER: The source Kevin’s talking about is mice. Remember Kevin’s strategy for targeting Lyme on the island is to go after the mice. Because…
KEVIN ESVELT: ...no infected mice means no infected ticks means no infected people.
ELAH FEDER: Which again, sounds great. But how?
KEVIN ESVELT: So how could we do this. Well....
ELAH FEDER: And that’s what Kevin spends the next thirty minutes explaining to the Vineyarders.
ANNIE MINOFF: Right. So one way of thinking about what Kevin wants to do here, is with a thought experiment. So let’s talk about polio.
ELAH FEDER: Let’s.
ANNIE MINOFF: Alright. So every year, we vaccinate kids against polio, right? Been doing this for generations. And that’s because even if you get your polio vaccine? You cannot pass on your polio immunity on to your children. Unfortunately.
ELAH FEDER: That is the limitation. But—this is where the thought experiment comes in— what if we made polio immunity genetic.
ANNIE MINOFF: Oooooo.
ELAH FEDER: So that you could pass it down to your kids! Like we do with eye color or any other genetic trait.
ANNIE MINOFF: Right. So I, Annie Minoff, got my polio vaccine as a kid. My immune system developed antibodies to fight the polio virus. Now I’m gonna say, what if a scientist came along, and took those anti-polio antibodies that I’d created? And programmed them into the genome of another human being.
ELAH FEDER: Hm. We should point out that there’s a moratorium on those kinds of shenanigans….
ANNIE MINOFF: Thus the thought experiment! So now we have our genetically modified human, who I am going to call...ASTRA! <Elah laughs>> Because that’s a really sci-fi sounding name! So Astra has not been vaccinated against polio. But! Her genome carries the instructions to make the very same polio-fighting antibody that I have.
ELAH FEDER: Right because scientists futzed with her genome.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah, so she’s immune!
ELAH FEDER: She’s immune. And the best part, Astra can now pass down that immunity to her kids.
ANNIE MINOFF: But leaving Astra aside, going back to Kevin and his mice. Same concept, right? Genetically engineer mice that are immune to Lyme—mice that can pass down that immunity to their mouse kids? And put a ton of those engineered mice onto the Vineyard.
ELAH FEDER: Like up to a few hundred thousand.
ANNIE MINOFF: Enough to really transform the gene pool. And BAM! You’ve got Lyme resistant mice generation after generation.
ELAH FEDER: Um-hm. And all that could all be ready...
KEVIN ESVELT: ...7 years from now, with most of the impact occurring 9 to ten years from now.
ELAH FEDER: Not soon.
ANNIE MINOFF: No. And how much would it cost?
KEVIN ESVELT: Probably the low tens of millions.
ELAH FEDER: Which Kevin’s not— not expecting the Vineyard to pay. He’d be looking for grant funding.
ANNIE MINOFF: Right and all of these numbers, we should mention— totally fuzzy right now.
KEVIN ESVELT: ...So this is not something that is coming up anytime soon. Again, this is the very earliest stages and we are talking to you now, because we haven’t done anything yet. And that’s the right time to talk to you.
ELAH FEDER: So that’s the proposal. In a nutshell.
ANNIE MINOFF: That’s the proposal. And the whole time that Kevin’s been laying this out, his audience has been pretty poker-faced. But now we’re heading into the Q&A…..
KEVIN ESVELT: I think I’d prefer to open it up to questions…
ANNIE MINOFF: ...and it’s kind of a free for all!
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: Would it be possible to offer free Lyme disease testing for the entire human population of the Vineyard?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: I was just wondering if you guys know about the California fence lizard?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: I have Lyme disease. What the heck do I do about it?
ANNIE MINOFF: These questions—they’re just all over the map. People want to know what other animals transmit Lyme? You know, is there a risk of creating a Lyme superbug?
ELAH FEDER: They were also asking for medical advice. And then there were the “what ifs.” What if we killed off the raccoons? What if we killed off the skunks? What about the California fence lizard!?
KEVIN ESVELT: I hadn’t heard of bringing in snakes. <<someone laughs>> I’ve heard of bringing back the grey fox...
ANNIE MINOFF: This Q&A stretches on for 45 minutes, an hour. People are starting to get antsy. And Kevin still doesn’t have an answer to the big question. Do people even want this?
ELAH FEDER: Well Kevin’s about to get his answer. How does the Vineyard feel about unleashing thousands of super-mice onto their island paradise?
ANNIE MINOFF: Coming up, it is ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ for GMO mice. And Kevin’s in the hot seat.
KEVIN ESVELT: There is a non-zero chance that I could spontaneously combust right here.
ELAH FEDER: After the break.
ELAH FEDER: When we left Kevin, he was at a community meeting. He’d just laid out a ten-year plan to solve the Vineyard’s Lyme problem by bringing genetically engineered mice to the island.
ANNIE MINOFF: And now, we’re an hour into this Q&A. People are getting antsy. And Kevin is no nearer answering one very basic question: Do people want this? And then, just when it seems like this meeting’s about to wrap, he starts to make his move.
KEVIN ESVELT: In this room, you know we’ve gotten distracted, people have their different issues and so on, but we’re having a good discussion, we’re identifying issues. It’d be interesting to see, based on what you know right now...
ANNIE MINOFF: He asks for a show of hands. How many people, knowing what they know right now, would want Kevin to keep working on this— to create these mice?
ELAH FEDER: And if no hands go up, it’s over. Kevin goes home.
ANNIE MINOFF: But that’s not what happens. Because nearly every hand in the room jumps up. About ninety hands.
KEVIN ESVELT: Really? I'm quite shocked.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: I want you to do everything! <<audience laughs>>
ELAH FEDER: That woman just yelled “I want you to do everything!”
ANNIE MINOFF: And I am stunned. On an island known, you know, for very impassioned public debate, there is no debate.
ELAH FEDER: But that consensus only lasts 7 seconds. Because a woman in a striped shirt, she jumps up. And before she can even get her hands on the mic, she starts talking.
ANNIE MINOFF: Her name’s is Leslie Serchuck. She’s an infectious disease doctor and bioethicist. And she says, basically, this consensus? Don’t believe it.
LESLIE SERCHUCK: If there's ever a time when you ask questions like that and only get the positive, and you don't even get someone saying “Do it on Nantucket,” <<audience laughs>> “Don't do it in my backyard,” you question what kind of information has been passed along, or what information is known.
ELAH FEDER: In other words, one hundred percent agreement means that people missed something. It means, you know, you, Kevin, have made this sound like a sure thing.
LESLIE: You have to share with the audience what little you know right now.
ANNIE MINOFF: And so Kevin does.
KEVIN ESVELT: We are 2-year-olds when it comes to understanding ecosystems. We're a bit better, we might be 6-year-olds when it comes to understanding biology at the molecular level. Now, the precautionary principle says don’t do anything unless you’re sure of what the impacts will be and the problem with that is, well, doing nothing is also a choice. And you've got to make a choice one way or another, either to do nothing or do something. And totally informed consent is impossible, total certainty is always impossible. There is a non-zero chance that I could spontaneously combust right here. <<Audience laughs>>
ANNIE MINOFF: And with that, the meeting’s over.
KEVIN ESVELT: Thank you everyone once again...
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you so much for coming! <<Audience applauds>>
ANNIE MINOFF: Now, for weeks, I was stuck on those ninety raised hands. Why the unanimous support for Kevin’s plan? Was it that all the anti-GMO people just stayed home? Or maybe the risks of the plan, they’re so long-term or so nebulous, it just doesn’t seem real? Maybe Lyme has gotten so bad, that any amount of risk seems worth it. I ran some of those hypotheses by Kevin. And that’s when he mentioned something I hadn’t even considered.
KEVIN ESVELT: We know that helping people understand exactly what we're proposing to do has absolutely no effect whatsoever on their support for the proposal.
ANNIE MINOFF: Really!
KEVIN ESVELT: There’s lots of data on this, and—
ANNIE MINOFF: So you don't expect by going out and explaining something well that, that is going to change hearts and minds. That that—
KEVIN ESVELT: No—
ANNIE MINOFF: That's not part of your equation at all.
KEVIN ESVELT: No. Not at all in terms of the technical details. Doesn't help.
ANNIE MINOFF: Turns out, Kevin is completely right about this. There is a lot of data. And it all backs up this idea that facts— They don’t change people’s minds.
ELAH FEDER: For example, a study of Europeans found the more people knew about the science of GMO foods? The more confused they were about whether to support them.
KEVIN ESVELT: What people care about, is an entirely different set of questions. WHO is developing it? WHY are they developing it? HOW are they developing it? Are they going to profit from it?
ELAH FEDER: To be clear Kevin did talk about the science of his proposal. In detail.
ANNIE MINOFF: But the point of this meeting, it wasn’t to make Vineyarders science buffs. It was to involve them in this process. To signal, in every way possible, you guys are in control.
ELAH FEDER: And you’re not just in control of whether this happens or not. You are in control right down to the nitty-gritty details of this experiment. For example, Kevin talked about running a trial first on a small uninhabited island. And so he asked the audience:
KEVIN ESVELT: Which island?
ANNIE MINOFF: And what will count as success?
KEVIN ESVELT: If there are side effects, how minor do they need to be for the community to consider moving forwards on the Vineyard?
ANNIE MINOFF: He even asked them what kind of mice he should make. Like should he engineer them to be resistant to just Lyme, or other diseases too?
ELAH FEDER: Right. This wasn’t that meeting in Key West, Florida, where scientists came in with a product and a plan. Kevin wasn’t just laying out a plan. He wasn’t just telling, he was asking. Because yes, he’s the expert. He’s got the facts. But islanders, they’re the ones who are gonna have to live with the consequences of these decisions.
ANNIE MINOFF: And this kind of situation? It plays out all the time.
ELAH FEDER: Think about the last time that you or someone in your family had to make a major medical decision. Something’s gone wrong. The doctor lays out a buffet of options and she says, you know, you could do surgery or you can take more of a do nothing ‘wait and see’ approach. And then she explains the risks with each of those options.
ANNIE MINOFF: And you’re never gonna know, like in the time you have to make this decision, everything that this doctor knows about, you know, this surgery, for example. She is the expert. But it’s your body, so you have to make the decision.
ELAH FEDER: And that’s what informed consent actually looks like. Kevin gets that.
KEVIN ESVELT: So much of it is based off of trust. And trust has to be earned. It doesn't come naturally, it doesn't come with just the mantle of being a perceived expert, it has to be earned. And, frankly I don't think I've earned their trust yet, or at least I should not have.
ELAH FEDER: Here’s what Kevin’s betting it’ll take to earn the Vineyard’s trust. First, more meetings. Since last July, Kevin’s been back to the island 7 times, presenting to the islanders and their boards of health.
ANNIE MINOFF: He’s also presented on another tick-infested island about thirty miles away: Nantucket. That’s another place this experiment might happen.
ELAH FEDER: Earning trust— It also means making this project non-profit. It means setting up specific points along the way where Vineyarders have to actively say “Yes, let’s move forward to the next stage.”
ANNIE MINOFF: And it means voting. That show of hands in the library conference room, that was testing the waters. The real vote is years away.
ANNIE MINOFF: Would you count this as a success if the island says no? If they go through this process, they vote, and no mice?
KEVIN ESVELT: I would say that is a necessary example that we need to have. That, scientists, when people say no, will stop. That will be worthwhile in and of itself.
ANNIE MINOFF: For Kevin, just showing that consent actually means something—that if you say no, scientists will respect that? That’s a win.
ELAH FEDER: But imagine if the Vineyard votes yes. Say Kevin’s mice get released on the island, and say they work. Say they get rid of Lyme.
KEVIN ESVELT: There will likely be some form of movement on the mainland to say wait a minute, we want that too.
ANNIE MINOFF: There were about 4 thousand cases of Lyme in Massachusetts in 2015. 5 thousand in New Jersey. 9 thousand in Pennsylvania. That’s just the people who go to the doctor. Lyme is spreading.
ELAH FEDER: And here’s the bad news: Kevin’s solution for Martha’s Vineyard, it’s not going to work for New Jersey or Pennsylvania. Kevin’s proposing to change the gene pool for a few hundred thousand mice. On one island. He’s betting he can do it with a ton of engineered mice, and the regular old laws of inheritance.
ANNIE MINOFF: Like what Mendel discovered: You’ve got a gene, you’ve got a fifty percent chance of passing that gene to your offspring.
ELAH FEDER: But this doesn’t work on the mainland. Because there you don’t have a few hundred thousand mice. You have billions of mice. If you want that anti-Lyme gene to spread? Regular old inheritance? It’s not gonna cut it.
ANNIE MINOFF: So Kevin and others, they’re working on another, more powerful technology. It’s called gene drive, and it’ a genetic hack. A mouse with gene drive? It wouldn’t just have a fifty percent chance of passing Lyme resistance genes down to their offspring. They’d have a nearly hundred percent chance. Every mouse is Lyme resistant, generation after generation after generation, after generation, after generation <<fades out>>
ELAH FEDER: THIS IS BIG. Because gene drive doesn’t stop. You release one mouse with gene drive, you have, potentially, just changed the genetics of every mouse on the planet.
ANNIE MINOFF: And I want to be super clear about this. Kevin is not planning to use any version of gene drive on the Vineyard. He’s going with, you know, classic old inheritance. But looking to the future? Kevin is working on a version of gene drive that would not spread indefinitely.
ELAH FEDER: Think of it like gene drive lite.
ANNIE MINOFF: Right. So the idea is it works over a certain number of generations. The gene is spreading, it’s spreading, it’s spreading, and then it stops.
ELAH FEDER: But still you might think, you know, if scientists are working on this technology that might potentially change the genetics of every mouse on the planet? You know, you as a citizen of the planet might want a vote!
ANNIE MINOFF: And that’s the thing. You thought informed consent was hard on one little island? Try a planet.
<<Water sounds. Voice over an intercom: “Welcome ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard the Island Home...For your protection life jackets are located around the vessel...>>
ANNIE MINOFF: The evening after the meeting, Kevin and I caught the ferry back to the mainland. Partway through the ride, he actually pulled his foot up onto the ferry seat, started rolling up the bottom of his jeans, and looking very intently at his ankle. And it took me a second to realize what was going on. He was doing a tick check. Earlier that day, a journalist making a video about Kevin had him out in the woods, you know, shooting some b-roll.
KEVIN ESVELT: We were out in the grass by the edge of the woods and of course, edge of the woods is, you know, prime mouse habitat and therefore ticks. But I was just curious, so I ran my hands through a lot of the grass and sure enough, up came a tick.
ANNIE MINOFF: It could be years before we know if the Vineyard ultimately says yes. Meanwhile, the ticks are still out there. This will be the first tick check of many if Kevin really wants them gone.
ANNIE MINOFF: Undiscovered is reported and produced by me, Annie Minoff.
ELAH FEDER: And me, Elah Feder. And we definitely have some thank you’s to say, because this is the last episode of our first season!
ANNIE MINOFF: It is! We’ve been coming to you every week since May but now we have to actually go find some more stories to bring you for season 2? So this is not goodbye, it is just goodbye for now.
ELAH FEDER: And of course the biggest thank you’s go to, well, you for listening. Thank you. We didn’t know if that would happen. If you’ve got thoughts about what you want to hear more of in the second season, let us know. We’ve got a survey set up at undiscovered podcast dot org slash survey.
ANNIE MINOFF: Our trusty editor is Christopher Intagliata. Thank you so much. Season 1 would not have happened without you.
ELAH FEDER: Thanks also to Danielle Dana, Christian Skotte Brandon Echter, and Rachel Bouton.
ANNIE MINOFF: We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. I am Robot and Proud wrote our theme. Original music for this and every episode in Undiscovered season 1 is by Daniel Peterschmidt.
ELAH FEDER: Special thanks to our launch partner, the John Templeton Foundation. You can find more Undiscovered at Undiscovered podcast dot o-r-g. Or on Twitter at Undiscovered pod.
ANNIE MINOFF: And we’ll see you soon.