Genetic engineering. I realize that this topic has been beaten to death in popular culture, but I don’t think the focus has been on the actual technology—really only the flashy outcomes for lay people. I can understand the need to simplify and sensationalize for entertainment, but decoupling the effects from the cause is, at best, ignorant and, at worst, misleading.
The reason that genetic engineering is popular today is largely because of the discovery of CRISPR. But it’s important to note that the field itself is not new; nearly all commercial forms of insulin are from genetically engineered bacteria.
Prior to Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR), technologies like Zinc Finger Nucleases (ZFNs) were somewhat random. While it was likely that the gene you wanted to manipulate would be inserted into a specific location, it was unclear where in the host’s DNA it would end up. Far more often than not, the gene would end up either in the middle of another host gene (likely lethal) or end up in the junkyard of the host genome, which is effectively useless. Both problems effectively made genetic engineering on humans far too risky.
The introduction of CRISPR, however, has completely changed the field.
CRISPR works similarly to ZFNs, except that it has a very specific targeting domain so that the genes almost always end up in the location that you want them to. While there are still minor kinks to correct, the technique will likely be perfected within this decade. While this technique is no doubt one of the finest inventions in the field of biology, even the person that discovered it, Dr. Jennifer Doudna, is calling for the halting of research in the field until bioethics has a chance to catch up.
The terms “designer babies” and “gene drive” are very common buzzwords; however, they genuinely do present ethical challenges for us a species. For example, most people wouldn’t have a problem using CRISPR to eradicate debilitating genetic conditions or destroying the ability of insect-carried diseases to infect people.
The problem arises when we begin to consider what counts as pathology, there is an argument that variation from societal, social or biological normality makes people unique. Surely something like schizophrenia or leukemia is morally permissible to eradicate, but what about autism, homosexuality or intersexuality? It’s a relatively short slippery slope before you end up at eugenics.
Another cause for concern is the ecological impact of transgenics. Using the CRISPR based Gene Drive construct, you can force all offspring of a transgenic organism to carry your gene and their offspring, and then their offspring. This is ideal in a lab; however, if a single individual is accidentally released into the environment, it could easily damage genetic diversity, and permanently disturb the careful equilibrium of an ecosystem.
There are instances in which not using cheap, readily available technology like CRISPR to cure or prevent diseases may be unethical. For example, the technology to destroy the means by which malaria spreads already exists. Is it really ethical to allow a disease that affects over 200 million people a year (90% of whom are children) to exist? Are there limits that we shouldn’t cross? Until we have those discussions and draw the lines, research in genetic engineering is effectively playing with fire, analogous to research in nuclear fission during the Cold War.
Like a thermonuclear bomb, releasing CRISPR technology into the world, whether using it for humans or other animals, is not an action that we can reverse, and its results could be equally catastrophic to life on earth.
These discussions aren’t entirely hypothetical by the way; the first genetically modified human babies were born in China last year.
To clarify, I am not against progress in CRISPR research. I am a huge fan of the technology and I believe it can be an invaluable resource to improve the world. However, as a student in this field, I am concerned with the ramifications of this techology, enough that it gives me pause. The public discussion surrounding genetic engineering and legislation desperately needs to catch up to the science.