A Small Cut, A Great Divide: How Far Will We Take Genome Editing?

The past several decades are a testament to the extraordinary amount of  intelligence the human race possesses.  Ideas which were once science fiction, stemming from the wild nature of human curiosity, have now become concrete realities of our everyday-lives. So much has changed, and we’ve come so far, one can’t help but wonder where the barrier lies. Just how far are we willing to guide the extremes of science? And once we reach that barrier, who will stop the innovative thinker that dares to break through?

We’ve mastered many of the components which control the complex system that is the human body. Of course, there are thousands, if not millions more that we’ve yet to understand. But when it comes to the big picture, our comprehensibility is already quite extensive. However, the further we go, the closer we come to walking on thin ice. Science has notably moved past simply learning to "read" DNA and into the territory of "writing" it. 

The remarkable tool we've used to achieve such a milestone consists of clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and the Cas9 protein, a pair commonly referred to as CRISPR-Cas9. In simple terms, CRISPR-Cas9 can be used to edit genomes. This is achieved by making a “double-stranded break,” a cut in both strands of DNA double helix. The DNA then activates a cell’s natural repair mechanisms, and by introducing the changes we instead desire, we change a piece of the encrypted message that all DNA carries.

We can think of DNA in terms of books. Trying to read the series of messages and instructions that each strand contains would prove as difficult of a feat as sitting in a room stacked to the ceiling with encyclopedias. Each page would read a different sequence of the same repeated proteins, Adenine (A), Guanine (G), Thymine (T) and Cytosine (C). Before we can edit our genes, though, we need to first understand how to read them. So far, what has been deducted is how to understand bits and pieces. CRISPR-Cas9 can then be used to “tear out” and rewrite one of these pages.

This is also where societal concerns come into play. There is already great controversy over our definitions of “perfection.” With all the efforts to get us to accept who we are, as we are, the desired effects of gene editing may very well disrupt current social norms. 

The classic argument against this is that we are “playing God” and overstepping our authority as mere human beings. Those less inclined to a religious viewpoint still contend that evolution is a natural process, and not one we should meddle in.  Fears of “going too far” and reaching a point of no return are constantly being expressed.  If we have edited every last bit of what makes us human, then what will we become?

A common misconception is that once a human’s genomes are edited, these changes will be passed down to their offspring, making them hereditary. This is untrue. If the individual's genomes are being edited, then it will only affect the individual. It is only when sperm cells or embryos are edited directly that their genes will be passed on to all offspring. There are rules in place for rewriting the DNA of an individual. But what about the rights of those unborn? Is it morally acceptable to mutate the most crucial components of a human being before they even get a say?

The National Academy of Sciences developed a list of criteria for permissible manipulation of genes: whatever is trying to be fixed must have the potential to cause extreme suffering, there must be a strong confidence in that the gene being edited is a likely cause for said problem, and there must be no other justifiable alternative to fix the problem and no coercion to be used. These standards bring into light the primary concern behind gene editing. Who defines  “extraordinary suffering?” Pain is entirely relative. Also, will there be a distinguished difference between mental and physical suffering? When it comes to gene editing for disease prevention, what percentage of risk will need to be involved to remove a gene linked to the illness? And finally, will we let our aspirations get the best of us?

The line between successful innovation and a consequential disregard for human limits is thin and easily blurred. Perhaps we will overstep it, and the problems currently facing our species will no longer exist. Perhaps we will reach a phase where what it means to be human must be redefined. After all, that is the basis of evolution. We’ve already learned to bend and manipulate the physical world surrounding us. Now we must turn inward and ask ourselves how we ought to regulate our own actions where we will bring our exponential climb in the world of science to a halt.

 

 

Notes

Vidyasagar, Aparna. “What Is CRISPR?” LiveScience, Purch, 21 Apr. 2017, www.livescience.com/58790-crispr-explained.html.

Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Gene: an Intimate History. Vintage, 2017.