Morality vs Progress: What Genome Editing Means for the Future
Updated: Jun 21, 2020
CRISPR has been a long debated subject: gene editing could be the future of the human race, allowing for custom babies and removal of disease-causing genes, but the morality of altering a fetus's genes to make it better fit for survival or, simply, better-looking, is a vague one.
Scientists race for the next big evolution in biotech, and CRISPR seems to be the way many are going, but many people have qualms about the morality of allowing for gene editing of a fetus..
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What is CRISPR?
Simply put, CRISPR-Cas9 tech is gene-editing technology, a powerful tool that allows scientists to add, remove, or replace the DNA of a human before they are born. It stands for "clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats", and the full scientific name of this tool is CRISPR-Cas9. The CRISPR itself is a specialized section of DNA, and Cas9 is a protein that is able to cut away sections of DNA. The special attribute CRISPRs have are that the nucleotide sequences,a made of Adenine, Thymine, Guanine, and Cytosine, repeat frequently and are spaced out by spacers.
How does CRISPR-Cas9 technology work?
The idea for using CRISPRs and Cas9 proteins together to edit genomes of fetuses is, in fact, a classic example of biomimicry; scientists, while examining Streptococcus thermophilus bacteria, found an extremely unique method of virus defense. The bacteria would, through a complex biological process with many steps, effectively send Cas9 proteins to chop up the DNA in the virus's nucleus, and use the CRISPRs in the virus DNA (remember, CRISPRs are sections of DNA) to remember how exactly to fight that virus if it were to come back. It is all a very complex process, but the gist is: the bacteria chops up the virus DNA and uses the CRISPRs, which are sections of DNA, to remember how to defend against that specific virus. The CRISPR-Cas9 technology scientists came up with in their laboratories works almost the same way, using this process to edit genes of fetuses before they are born..
Scientists create a small strand of RNA called CRISPR RNA (crRNA) that will enter a fetus's nucleus and bind itself to a selected strand of DNA. It is coded to bind only to that specific section or gene, for example, the gene that codes for a higher likelihood of getting colon cancer, or the gene for green colored eyes. The crRNA also binds to a Cas9 protein, which cuts the gene the crRNA has binded to. Usually, when DNA is cut in a cell, the cell has DNA repair measures that replace the removed nucelotide sequence, and scientists use this tool to their advantage to replace that gene with a customized gene sequence, for example, a gene for blue eyes instead. Or, they could remove the gene and connect the two loose ends of the DNA together, effectively removing the gene.
The Morality of Genome Editing
Every large scientific discovery brings along with it its own backlash and effects onto the world. Gasoline powered cars brought pollution, and electricity brought harmful power plants and its fair share of pollution as well. CRISPR-Cas9 has been, undoubtedly, the biggest debate in genome technology so far, and lets take a look at why.
First, the biological implications behind having a tool able to edit anything in the human body could be devastatingly severe. Natural selection, nature's way of choosing who to survive and who to die, is driven by the fact that there are irregularities in the genome of every newborn organism. Being able to edit the genome could mean the complete removal of hereditary diseases and a significant reduction in genetic variety. If everyone was given the gene to be incredibly muscular, body type genes would be removed. All of the above mentioned are selective pressures, things like disease and how physically fit you are, which affect how fit you are for survival. Genome editing could effectively eradicate the effect of natural selection on humans, upsetting nature's balance.
Also, of course, this could have large economic implications. CRISPR-Cas9 technology is incredibly cutting-edge and expensive to make or use. Many believe only the richest can afford CRISPR-Cas9 technology, which means the majority of middle and lower-class people will not have the privilege of using the technology. This could cause a larger divide between people, which could cause political issues as well. So, should we be able to edit the human genome? The answer is an obscure one, clouded by moral, economic, and biological implications, and the race for the future of genetic technology could make or break the human race.
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