A medical revolution is currently underway, one that could change the fate of humanity forever. The results of which could lead to the permanent elimination of a plethora of currently incurable diseases, or it could unleash a wave of unprecedented horror upon the entire human race. At the core of this revolution is one of the most controversial concepts in the history of biomedicine: gene editing.
Genome (or gene) editing is the act of altering an organism’s genetic material. Scientists are able to change, swap, delete, or insert entire sections of an organism’s DNA. While many approaches to gene editing have been explored, the most recent and prominent method is a technology called CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). CRISPR can attribute it’s rapid rise to fame to being less costly, more accurate, more efficient, and more effective than existing methods.
CRISPR technology was inspired by the natural genome editing system in bacteria. The bacteria seize bits of genetic material from invading viruses, using them to construct sections of DNA. These segments of DNA are stored, enabling the bacteria to “recall” a virus when encountering similar viruses. This causes the bacteria to produce fragments of RNA to target the viruses’ DNA, using an enzyme like Cas9 to tear the DNA apart, rendering the virus officially disabled.
In the CRISPR system, scientists construct a small piece of RNA with a specifically coded base sequence, which binds to a prespecified segment of DNA and an enzyme, usually Cas9 or Cpfl. The DNA sequence recognized by the RNA segment and is cut by the attached enzyme. Once the genomes are cut, scientists utilize the organism’s DNA repair mechanism to add, delete, replace, or customize the organism’s genetic material. This process is only done to somatic cells, so any changes made will not be passed down to the organism’s offspring. Currently, scientists are researching the effects of gene editing on animals in order to determine whether it is safe for human usage.
All the fervid discourse over gene editing essentially boils down to a clash between two core ideas: progress versus ethics. Both sides have fervent supporters, scientific reasoning, and an abundance of evidence to back up their claims.
Proponents of gene editing advocate that this process causes progress. If used correctly, gene editing could permanently cure and prevent a variety of different diseases, such as sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, cancer, heart disease, mental illnesses, genetic disorders, and sexually transmitted diseases (specifically HIV). Research discoveries from gene editing are already being used to develop medicines, which can help eradicate a plethora of diseases. Additionally, gene editing could expand the lifespan of humans. By enhancing genes to defend against illnesses and other problems that deteriorate one’s health, the average human lifespan and quality of life could increase dramatically. This technology could also be applied to agriculture and food production. By altering the genetic material of crops, we could find ways to make crops that are able to grow in a variety of different conditions and temperatures and are more pest-resistant, causing production costs to go down. This would make it easier for the world to eat healthier, which would improve the general welfare of the human race.
Opponents of gene editing advocate ethical issues around the topic. With current advancements in gene editing, it’s possible that in the near future, gene editing germ cells and embryos will be possible. This brings up the question of whether it is moral to “customize” a human by enhancing their physical traits; potentially changing the course of human genetics. Diversity is one of the driving factors of evolution, a basic natural process, and gene editing would forever tamper with this. The alteration of humans is by its very nature unnatural, and “playing God” is simply outrageous, opponents claim. Another point of contention people have is that gene editing also compromises the safety of an organism. In an effort to eradicate one disease, we risk creating a new, even deadlier one, causing harm to the baby and mother. In addition to this, the technology is incredibly expensive. If developed, it could very well be reserved for only the economically elite, leaving all other embryos to remain biologically inferior and deepening the divide between those that are wealthy and those that are not.
Whether we like it or not, the fact of the matter is that this technology has already been developed and won’t be going away any time soon. The question that remains now is how we utilize this technology, or if we should utilize it at all.