Genetic engineering and the end of the world – The Medium

Posted: September 24, 2019 at 5:47 am

Geneticengineering. I realize that this topic has been beaten to death in popularculture, but I dont think the focus has been on the actual technologyreallyonly the flashy outcomes for lay people. I can understand the need to simplifyand sensationalize for entertainment, but decoupling the effects from the causeis, at best, ignorant and, at worst, misleading.

The reason that genetic engineering is populartoday is largely because of the discovery of CRISPR. But its important to notethat the field itself is not new; nearly all commercial forms of insulin arefrom genetically engineered bacteria.

Prior to Clustered Regularly InterspacedShort Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR), technologies like Zinc Finger Nucleases(ZFNs) were somewhat random. While it was likely that the gene you wanted tomanipulate would be inserted into a specific location, it was unclear where inthe hosts DNA it would end up. Far more often than not, the gene would end upeither in the middle of another host gene (likely lethal) or end up in thejunkyard of the host genome, which is effectively useless. Both problemseffectively made genetic engineering on humans far too risky.

The introduction of CRISPR, however, hascompletely changed the field.

CRISPR works similarly to ZFNs, exceptthat it has a very specific targeting domain so that the genes almost alwaysend up in the location that you want them to. While there are still minor kinksto correct, the technique will likely be perfected within this decade. Whilethis technique is no doubt one of the finest inventions in the field ofbiology, even the person that discovered it, Dr. Jennifer Doudna, is callingfor the halting of research in the field until bioethics has a chance to catchup.

The terms designer babies and genedrive are very common buzzwords; however, they genuinely do present ethicalchallenges for us a species. For example, most people wouldnt have a problemusing CRISPR to eradicate debilitating genetic conditions or destroying theability of insect-carried diseases to infect people.

The problem arises when we begin toconsider what counts as pathology, there is an argument that variation fromsocietal, social or biological normality makes people unique. Surely somethinglike schizophrenia or leukemia is morally permissible to eradicate, but whatabout autism, homosexuality or intersexuality?Its a relatively short slippery slope before you end up at eugenics.

Another cause for concern is theecological impact of transgenics. Using the CRISPR based Gene Drive construct,you can force all offspring of a transgenic organism to carry your gene andtheir offspring, and then their offspring. This is ideal in a lab; however, ifa single individual is accidentally released into the environment, it could easilydamage genetic diversity, and permanently disturb the careful equilibrium of anecosystem.

There are instances in which not usingcheap, readily available technology like CRISPR to cure or prevent diseases maybe unethical. For example, the technology to destroy the means by which malariaspreads already exists. Is it really ethical to allow a disease that affectsover 200 million people a year (90% of whom are children) to exist? Are therelimits that we shouldnt cross? Until we have those discussions and draw thelines, research in genetic engineering is effectively playing with fire,analogous to research in nuclear fission during the Cold War.

Like a thermonuclear bomb, releasingCRISPR 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 equallycatastrophic to life on earth.

These discussions arent entirelyhypothetical by the way; the first genetically modified human babies were bornin China last year.

To clarify, I am not against progress inCRISPR research. I am a huge fan of the technology and I believe it can be aninvaluable resource to improve the world. However, as a student in this field,I am concerned with the ramifications of this techology, enough that it givesme pause. The public discussion surrounding genetic engineering and legislationdesperately needs to catch up to the science.

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Genetic engineering and the end of the world - The Medium

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