Genetic modification is by no means a new concept to human beings. Since DNA was first discovered people have been trying to find ways to manipulate it to their advantage. As a society, we have been consuming the result of these experiments in food products since the early 90’s. Everything from fruits to vegetables to animals have been genetically modified for our convenience.
However, hundreds of scientists, policymakers and even the president’s science adviser recently gathered for a three-day summit to discuss the effects that a new, controversial form of genetic modification will have on us.
CRISPR And Human Genetic Modification
The summit took place at the headquarters of the National Academy of Sciences, and was held in order to discuss the implications that a new genetic engineering technique, referred to as CRISPR, will have on the human race.
Developed in the past four years, CRISPR has proven to be a surprisingly fast, cheap and efficient way to manipulate DNA. It is based off of the process that is used by ordinary bacteria to fend off viruses, which the Washington Post explains extensively in their coverage of the new technique:
“The technique borrows a move from bacteria. In a bacterium’s DNA are segments of genetic information that bear the likeness of viral pathogens, kind of like the FBI’s Most Wanted bulletins at the post office. The bacterium has an enzyme, called Cas9, that can read that likeness, scout the environment for anything looking the same, and then, when finding a likely suspect, snip lengthwise the entwined double-helix DNA strands of the invader…If properly targeted, it can precisely edit genes”
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Although CRISPR has been used extensively on plants and animals, the main controversy surrounding the technique is due to the fact that it works very effectively on mammalian “germline” cells. These are hereditary cells that can have permanent effects on both an individual and their offspring. This means that, by genetically engineering cells in human eggs, sperm and early embryos, not only will the genes of the child resulting from the procedure be changed, but it will also have an effect on any of the future generations that the genetically modified individual will produce.
This has led to many arguments for and against its use on human beings. Several ethical and moral dilemmas have been raised about the possibility, and many researchers argue that it is too soon and too dangerous to begin applying gene editing techniques to humans. Many experts are also worried that genetic engineering on humans will be abused for uses other than disease prevention, such as cosmetic, physical or intellectual enhancements.
There is much excitement and controversy in the scientific community surrounding this new information. Although, according to Jennifer Doudna, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the pioneers of the CRISPR technology, it will still be many years before these techniques are even going to be considered to be used on human beings.
“We don’t understand enough yet about the human genome, and how genes interact, and which genes give rise to certain traits to edit for human enhancement today,” she said.
However, several countries are preparing to begin work on genetically modifying humans sooner than one may think, and some already have.
Scientists in China have carried out several experiments on human genetic engineering, and in Britain scientists have been granted permission to begin genetic modification of human embryos by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority.
This could mean that the use of the CRISPR technique on humans may come sooner than we would expect.
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