Will imminent progress in genetic engineering allow us to have designer babies, cure disease and prevent aging?
By: Natalie K.
Photo: Earth Times
As the keys to human gene altering seem to finally be within our reach, is the sky really the limit? With the possibilities of ‘deleting’ unfavourable traits and diseases, selecting the best genes for your kid, borrowing DNA from other animals, and even halting or reversing aging all on the horizon, where will we draw the line? With recent and ongoing discoveries in science, these moral boundaries are beginning to rise before us.
Scientists have recently discovered a programmable biological defence system found in bacteria that can help them easily and precisely identify and edit the genes in any strand of DNA. The reason this is such a thrilling development to scientists is that previous methods were hard, slow, unpredictable, and very pricey. The CRISPR-Cas9 technique is accessible, efficient, and works for anyone with a lab. Experiments could go from taking a year to taking a few weeks, and costs have been eliminated by up to 99%. This discovery is to be a major advancement in the field of genetic engineering. The efficiency of CRISPR Cas-9 is so stark compared to previous methods that one source describes the difference as “if previous genetic manipulation techniques were like a map, CRISPR is like a GPS system.” This is all great progress and is better for scientists, but there are a lot of problems that implementing the engineering will cause.
Further forays into this line of work bring into question some serious ethical barriers and concepts. Will we allow the altering of dispositions towards diseases? While we’re at it, can we make sure our kids won’t have to suffer through life with bad vision? Can we make sure they end up strong? Intelligent? Able to breathe underwater and so never drown? How far along this moral path are we willing to go? These are all questions we’ll have to answer as we go along. It’s also inevitable that the technology will be taken advantage of, with people using it to further their own ends or wreak havoc by engineering the apocalypse or attempting world domination with super soldiers. Just imagine what could happen if a country like North Korea got a hold of something like that.
Some might decide that it isn’t worth the benefits. Nevertheless, genetic engineering is coming our way whether we’re ready for it or not. Already, malaria-free mosquitoes have been created in labs, and are waiting to be set free to reproduce with the rest of their disease-ridden species and to breed the malaria out of them via gene drives.
Disease free-mosquitoes could become the norm, though they’ll still be irritating.
It’s also important to realize that genetic engineering is already happening all around us. Even without directly tampering with our cells, we’ve already been putting genetic engineering into practice for generations. Via pregnancy checks, pregnant women can check what diseases their kids might have, like Down Syndrome. 92% of pregnancies where Down Syndrome is detected in the infant are terminated. Though simple, that’s still genetic identification followed by selection. While that doesn’t seem so very far off from natural selection, the boundary of ‘close enough’ is just going to get blurrier. And are we really ready to take up the job that nature’s been perfecting for billions of years so quickly?
There isn’t really a right answer, and for now, eradicating some of the deadliest diseases still seems pretty safe. However, everything has a balance, and it’ll get harder and harder to stay on this tightrope of ethics as it grows thinner down the line.