In science fiction movies, it seems like it is easy to edit the genetics of a living organism. In reality, it is very, very difficult. A new technique in genetic engineering is creating quite a buzz in the genetics world because it allows researchers to do just that: edit the DNA of living cells.
It is called CRISPR and it uses an enzyme discovered in bacteria that can target a specific sequence of DNA and cut it. Bacteria use this enzyme as a kind of immune system targeting, cutting and disabling the DNA of viruses attempting to infect the cell.
Researchers have adapted CRISPR for use in plant and animal cells and can use the technology to precisely edit DNA at a very specific point. They can use CRISPR to silence genes or add new genes into the cells of a living organism. Scientists have been able to use CRISPR to introduce targeted mutations into yeast, plants, mice, rats, pigs and even primates.
CRISPR is not just revolutionizing genetic research, it is forcing us to have a much needed conversation about the genetic engineering of humans.
Ideally CRISPR will only be used for gene therapy in humans, fixing a defective gene in a patient with genetic disease. But CRISPR technology could be used for virtually anything, including creating true designer children with DNA specified by parents.
Scientists recently announced that they were able to use CRISPR to edit the DNA of a mouse embryo at the moment of conception. BBC News has the story:
Rapid progress in genetics is making “designer babies” more likely and society needs to be prepared, leading scientists have told the BBC.
Dr Tony Perry, a pioneer in cloning, has announced precise DNA editing at the moment of conception in mice.
He said huge advances in the past two years meant “designer babies” were no longer HG Wells territory.
Other leading scientists and bioethicists argue it is time for a serious public debate on the issue.
Designer babies – genetically modified for beauty, intelligence or to be free of disease – have long been a topic of science fiction.
Dr Perry, who was part of the teams to clone the first mice and pigs, said the prospect was still fiction, but science was rapidly catching up to make elements of it possible.
In the journal Scientific Reports, he details precisely editing the genome of mice at the point DNA from the sperm and egg come together.
It really is time for the public to realize that the genetic engineering that they see in movies is quite possibly achievable, not in our grand-children’s lifetimes, but in our own. It is time to stop ignoring the steady advance of genetic engineering and take charge of its direction.
It is not inevitable that technologies like CRISPR will be used to radically change the nature of humanity and usher in a world full of genetically-enhanced children. We can use it only for therapeutic purposes, fixing genetic mutations that cause disease. The medicinal applications are endless if we can successfully control the technology. I agree with Dr. King from Human Genetic Alert:
Dr David King, from the campaign group Human Genetics Alert, echoed calls for the public to engage with the issue.
He said: “I think it’s pretty inevitable that we’ll get to a point where it’s scientifically possible, certainly these new techniques of genome editing have made something look much more feasible than it did five years ago.
“But that does not mean to say it’s inevitably the way we have to go as a society.”
Of course this requires that we have serious conversations now about what genetic engineering in humans we are willing to allow. In the United States, this means we must get federal legislation on the books that addresses the genetic engineering of human beings, most importantly the genetic engineering of human embryos. Unlike most other civilized countries in the world, we have no laws at the federal level governing the genetic manipulation of humans.
The time has come to address the genetic engineering of humans. CRISPR, while it holds great promise, is forcing us to face the genetic manipulation of our species. We can wield the genetic engineering monster and make it serve us, curing disease and improving lives, but we must have the courage to engage.
Ignoring CRISPR and other genetic engineering technologies because they are scary and difficult to understand will not make them go away. It will only ensure that we will lose control.