Kevin Esvelt is an assistant professor of MIT and leader of the Sculpting Evolution group at the MIT Media Lab. His research team specializes in designing tools to reshape populations and ecosystems. An evolutionary engineer, Esvelt received his PhD from Harvard University in 2010 for inventing a synthetic microbial ecosystem for rapidly evolving useful biomolecules. As a Fellow of the Wyss Institute of Harvard, he helped pioneer the development of a powerful new method of genome engineering based on CRISPR/Cas9, an enzymatic scalpel that can be programmed to cut DNA at any desired sequence.
In 2014, Esvelt and his team were the first to outline how CRISPR could be used to build evolutionarily stable “gene drives” capable of altering wild populations of sexually reproducing organisms. Recognizing the potential implications of a unilateral method of reshaping shared ecosystems, he and his colleagues detailed ways to control, block, or even reverse changes made by gene drives while emphasizing the importance of laboratory safeguards to ensure they do not accidentally escape the laboratory. To set an example for future research in this field, they chose to reveal their findings before experimenting with CRISPR gene drives in the laboratory so that public notification and discussion could guide research and safeguards.
There is little precedent for deciding whether, when, and how to use “collective” technologies whose deployment can affect entire communities. In addition to exploring ecological and evolutionary engineering, Esvelt seeks to establish a new model of responsive science in which revealed community expectations guide the development of technologies with shared impacts.