Of all emerging technologies, from self-driving cars to virtual reality, gene editing is simultaneously the most fascinating and terrifying. When I first learned about it, I felt it was a headline pulled right from the future.
Genome editing involves changing the DNA sequence of a living organism. Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR for short, is one method of gene editing which was discovered in 1987. It allows scientists to target a specific location in the genome, cut the DNA using Cas9 protein and then replace the open section with the desired “donor” DNA template. In simpler terms, CRISPR enables scientists to cut out a piece of DNA and replace it with a new piece of DNA.
There are three domains of life — bacteria, archaea and eukarya. Eukarya is the domain which plants, animals and humans are contained in. For 3 billion years, CRISPR has occurred naturally in bacteria. By understanding how CRISPR works in bacteria, scientists were able to modify the first eukaryotic DNA using CRISPR in 2012. This was a monumental step in the world of gene editing, opening up the ability to genetically manipulate the human genome.
Since that point, CRISPR has been used in various applications. One of the most recent developments with CRISPR is its ability to potentially resurrect extinct species, such as the woolly mammoth, without requiring any live or frozen tissues. This process simply takes DNA from the extinct species’ closest living relative and alters it to match the DNA of the extinct species. While this hasn’t happened yet, the prospect is intriguing.
Perhaps the most influential yet controversial aspect of CRISPR technology is its use in modifying the human genome. This could allow expecting parents to select or exclude certain traits from their unborn child’s genome. This was actually done a few years ago by He Jiankui, who created the world’s first ever gene-edited children. He performed edits on the CCR5 gene, therefore providing the twin girls with lifelong immunity from HIV infection. He was later sentenced to three years in prison after being found guilty of “illegal medical practices.”
Through Jiankui, we can see that CRISPR’s capacity to alter the human genome and create “CRISPR babies” is certainly possible. However, a great amount of bioethical hesitancy has prevented genome editing from being widely accepted and used today.
One concern is that the patient cannot consent to this procedure when it is only an embryo. On the other hand, proponents of these genetic modifications feel that we can make these decisions on morally permissible grounds since they are affecting an embryo rather than a person.
In the future, children could be genetically altered in a number of ways. Parents could select against a lethal disease like Huntington’s Disease or a non-lethal disease like diabetes. Or, they could select for advantageous traits such as increased intelligence or better muscle composition.
Despite their potential, most of these examples are hypothetical. Science must advance before traits without nearly 100% heritability can be genetically reprogrammed. For example, intelligence is only around 50% genetic and muscle power is around 70% genetic. Complex traits such as these are very difficult to enhance using gene editing. On the other hand, Huntington’s Disease could be successfully edited using CRISPR since it is caused by a mutation in a single gene.
With each of these hypothetical or realistic cases, there is controversy over where the line should be drawn for enhancements. Is it permissible to select against harmful traits, for beneficial traits or are both cases permissible?
A consequence of genetically enhancing our children is the correlation between wealth and access to technology. It would likely be the wealthiest people who have access to these technologies first. With the wealthy able to avoid lethal diseases and people in reduced circumstances unable to avoid those same diseases, the already monumental disparity in opportunities between people of varying income levels would widen. Not to mention, people in poverty are more likely to need these genetic advantages since risk for certain health conditions is higher for those with lower incomes.
One proposed use of genetic technology is to select against traits that are often discriminated against — like certain skin or eye colors. While such modifications could reduce the impact of structural racism — such as being held back from certain opportunities because of appearance — we must acknowledge the consequences. If we are okay with the use of genetic technology to create a homogenous population of people, we arrive at the troublesome notion that we live in a society that does not value diversity. Diversity, which has formed the society we live in today, has brought us to a place of greater enculturation and has taught us the value of our differences.
To think there is a possibility that we as a society do not value diversity leaves us with a concerning view of our own values. If this societal aversion to diversity is true, using genome editing to promote homogeneity of traits might even lead to less appreciation for diversity than we currently have. This lack of appreciation will cause there to be notably worse treatment of the diverse people who remain, since there will be less strength in numbers to speak out against these issues. Not only will they be treated worse, but by the nature of our world’s history regarding racism, it is plausible to suppose more measures will be taken to reduce any remaining diversity.
It is evident that there are many facets of editing the human genome which we must consider prior to taking a hard stance on the matter. With all new technologies, we must approach them conservatively and consider all angles. Especially in this situation, we must remember we are dealing with the real lives of humans. Let us err on the side of caution in using genetic enhancements, as doing so has unprecedented consequences regarding worldly diversity and any advantages it may create.
Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.