In December, an international conference of scientists called for a moratorium on the use of gene editing technology that could see the eventual editing of the human genome, with enormous ramifications for the future of our species.
Before 2012, gene editing was a science in its infancy. According to The Week, gene editing a single gene would once have been the entirety of a Ph. D thesis, but no more. CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) Cas9 is a gene editing technique based on a natural defense system found in bacteria. As suggested by the name, CRISPRs are short, repeated sequences of genetic code interspersed with ‘spacers’ made up of remnant DNA from past invaders. According to the Broad Institute, the CRISPRs allow bacteria to gene edit themselves in response to new invaders, the sequencing and spacers making it easier for them to recognize and identify attacking cells.
Most of the scientists who came across this gene editing technique were simultaneously excited and highly cautious. On the one hand, this revolutionary advance in gene editing allowed scientists to target specific segments of genetic code and efficiently edit them using a process that only took a few days, as opposed to the months or sometimes years that such projects could have taken in the past. On the other hand, the implications of human gene editing were terrifying. There was real and widespread concern that ‘rogue scientists’ would use gene editing with CRISPR to create designer babies, or even attempt to ‘play god’ – the nightmare scenario of a mad scientist somewhere trying to create a new breed of super humans. It seemed as if CRISPR gene editing had the potential to make all of our science fiction nightmares come true.
Reality has been somewhat more prosaic, on the whole. Gene editing has been used for several years now to make various strains of food crop immune to common diseases, as well as the much publicized creation of a strain of malaria free mosquitoes. But when a team of Chinese scientists announced that they were experimenting on human embryos, alarm bells rang around the world. A team of Chinese scientists at Sun Yat-Sen attempted to use CRISPR-Cas 9 gene editing to cut susceptibility to a fatal blood disorder from the human genome. The results were far from positive, with none of the 86 embryos being tested being viable, and many of them developing unexplained and unwanted mutations from the process. In the words of Nobel Prize winning biologist David Baltimore, “Everything… says we’re not ready to be doing this yet.”
Aside from the unpredictable and potentially very serious practical problems, many scientists are unsure of the ethical basis for editing the human genome at all. While some scientists argue that the potential for disease prevention or even eradication means that we’d have no ethical choice but to pursue gene editing technology, there are many voices in the scientific community who are dead against any kind of tampering with human design. But since the international conference calling for the moratorium has no regulatory powers, the use of CRISPR is wholly dependent on the legal framework of each of the world’s nations. Most developed nations have strict laws when it comes to the use of CRISPR gene editing, but major exceptions like China have the international community worried.
On the lighter side, however, a counter-intuitive solution to the threatened extinction of elephants has elements of Jurassic Park about it. Using the fully sequenced genome of the woolly mammoth, there is a team of scientists working on using CRISPR gene editing to breed a strain of cold resistant elephants happy to live in climates other than the tropical regions of Africa and Asia.
Do you think an international body should be set up to regulate gene editing? Or ban it entirely? Sound off in the comments.
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