Science & Medicine

Eugenics: In the DNA of Cold Spring Harbor

From eugenics to gene editing: The mutation of Cold Spring Harbor Lab

The hamlet of Cold Spring Harbor, a picturesque little town looking out acrossCH CHSL sign red and cropped the Long Island Sound  to the Connecticut coast. A long sweep of marina on the way into CSHL leads to Bungtown Road and the stone buildings, wooded paths, clapboard labs and asparkling clean campus.

Once a whaling village, CHSL can boast of Nobel Prize winners and deep scientific roots in its genes. James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA structure was Chancellor of CSHL. There is a giant poster of him laughing with Francis Crick up on the Lab’s  walls.

Beneath its indisputable charm and appeal , CH ERO oticeCold Springs Harbor Labs harbors something much darker in its DNA. The history of  eugenics,  part science, part mumbo jumbo and deeply racist,  erupted along these same sun dappled paths along these same banks of  Long Island’s north shore.

The irony is extreme. The event in progress this day, Genome Engineering: The Crisper/Cas Revolution, was conceived and convened by Jennifer Doudna, Maria Jasin and Jonathan Weissman.  Doudna has been an outspoken and early critic of germ-line editing, of  applying this technology to modification of human heredity. Doudna has organized resistance to germ-line editing at this time through publications in Science and participation in international efforts to pull together a summit on the subject in December of 2015 in D.C.

And yet these same acres where this meeting is being held was the breeding ground of the vicious pseudo-science of eugenics.

Cold Spring Harbor Lab occupies the grounds of the old Eugenics Record Office, founded in 1911 by Charles Davenport. The ERO was ultimately responsible for the forced sterilization of hundreds of thousands of men and women and the passage of the racist US Immigration act of 1924. Its director from its inception until its closure in 1939 — when the Carnegie Institute withdrew its support — was Harry Laughlin. (In 1936 Laughlin was honored by the University of Heidelberg in Nazi Germany for his work on behalf of “the science of racial cleansing.” )

The final irony is most of the participants in the CRISPR/Cas Revolution meeting – Asians, Jews, Russians – would have been denied entry under the ERO inspired alien immigration act.

This day however,CH standing GOOD Terrace screen shot bright images projected on screens across CHSL during scientific presentations seem to have blown away the dark shadows of the past.  Here work describing the means of repairing mutated genes at the molecular level are center stage. It’s almost as if this intense scientific research into clinical and therapeutic application of gene editing was providing a redemption of sorts for the evil spread from this patch of ground in the past century.


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