WHY IS GENE EDITING IMPORTANT?

The gene editing technology CRISPR presents a deeply complicated ethical dilemma. It gives us the potential to prevent or cure diseases that cause human suffering.

It could even be used to improve the human species beyond our current capabilities. However, gene editing humans is a permanent decision. The consequences are unknown.  For all, we know the consequences could be very positive or potentially devastating.

Learn more in this post.

CRISPR Cas9 is arguably the most important biotechnology advancement of the century. Since its discovery in 2005, it has revolutionized genetic research. This technology is also extremely controversial. It can be used to edit embryos and modify the human germline.

WHAT IS THE HUMAN GERMLINE?

The human germline is the part of human genetics that passes biological information through families. The human genome is passed down over generations through DNA. Thus, CRISPR can change human DNA forever. For example, it can change the way humans look and act.

CRISPR is naturally found in certain types of bacteria, where it is used to protect against harmful viruses. It destroys virus DNA by chopping it into pieces, then saves these pieces inside the bacteria genome. This allows the bacteria to identify the virus if it is infected again in the future. Scientists have modified CRISPR to take a sequence of DNA and place it anywhere in the genome.

HOW DOES CRISPR WORK?

CRISPR is more precise, simple, and powerful than other gene editing technologies.  It can quickly and efficiently tweak almost any gene in any plant or animal. In very basic terms, it acts like scissors.  CRISPR allows a piece of DNA to be snipped and modified in some way.  Furthermore, it is relatively cheap and easy to implement. This technology can be used in a number of ways. In fact, the applications of CRISPR are limitless. For example, CRISPR can prevent or cure genetic diseases. Additionally, it can change how we react to medications, or even switch our eye color.

But for every benefit of this technology, there is a potential disaster as well. This edited DNA will be passed down to future generations. Thus, the human gene pool would be changed forever.

WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF GENE EDITING?

CRISPR has already been widely used in research. It is generally accepted as a research tool. But controversy erupted after an announcement on January 21, 2019. A scientist named He Jiankui announced he had used CRISPR to edit the human germline. However, no gene editing clinical trials had been approved on live human subjects.  Despite that, Jiankui used CRISPR to disable a gene called CCR5 with the hope of making two unborn children resistant to HIV.

The effects of editing CCR5 are complex. Disabling this gene prevents a person from contracting HIV but makes them more susceptible to West Nile Virus and the flu virus. The full consequences of editing this gene are unknown.

The news that the human germline had been edited was not well received by the scientific community. Jiankui broke ethical rules with his experiment and was immediately put on unpaid leave from his University. The majority of the scientific community is against Jiankui’s decision to edit the human germline without fully considering the implications.

WHAT IS A MORATORIUM?

A moratorium is a call to action to limit or prohibit an action. 

On March 13, 2019, a group of eighteen prominent scientists, including the co-founders of CRISPR, called for a moratorium on germline editing. They are urging the global scientific community to hold off on using CRISPR for now. First, scientists must reach a consensus on how and why this technology can be used. They specifically ask that anyone considering using this technology first notify the public and consult with other countries.

CRISPR presents a deeply complicated ethical dilemma. It gives us the potential to prevent or cure diseases that cause human suffering. It could even be used to improve the human species beyond our current capabilities. But editing the human germline is a permanent decision. The consequences cannot be foreseen but they have the potential to be devastating. As the group of eighteen scientists urge, we must proceed with caution.

Should there be a genome editing market? Should gene editing research be increased or limited?

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