Introduction to Gene Editing
Gene editing, also known as genome engineering, is a type of genetic engineering that involves inserting, deleting, modifying, or replacing DNA in the genome of a living organism. Unlike earlier genetic engineering techniques that randomly inserted genetic material into a host genome, genome editing targets specific locations in the genome.
The CRISPR Method
The most common method of gene editing is called CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. CRISPR is a technology that uses an enzyme derived from bacteria to cut through DNA strands at a specific location, creating an opening where a new segment of DNA can be inserted. This method is cheap, accessible, easy to use, and has made the possibility of genetically modified human babies a reality.
Gene Editing in Human Embryos
Using genome editing on human embryos is currently banned in France, Germany, Britain, and Japan. In 2015, Chinese researchers edited the genes of a human embryo in a lab dish, sparking global outrage and calls from scientists not to create a baby using the technology.
The Controversy Surrounding Gene Editing
Despite the bans, a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology in China has been recruiting couples for a clinical trial to create the world’s first gene-edited babies. The goal of the study is to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in order to make the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera. While the clinical trial documents describe the use of CRISPR to modify human embryos before they are transferred into women’s uteruses, it is not clear whether the pregnancies were terminated, carried to term, or are ongoing.
Recently, the Associated Press and other agencies have reported that one couple in the trial did give birth to twin girls, marking the world’s first births of genetically altered humans. This news has sparked a heated debate about the ethical implications of producing “designer babies” and the possibility of parents choosing traits such as eye color, hair color, or gender for their children.
Potential Benefits and Risks of Gene Editing
Some scientists argue that the technology presents low risks and could be effectively used in human embryos, while others have proposed using it to bring back extinct animals like woolly mammoths or saber-toothed tigers. There have even been suggestions of using DNA modification to achieve age reversal or a real-life “genetic Fountain of Youth.”
Ethical and Social Implications of Gene Editing
Ultimately, the potential for gene editing to shape the future of human evolution raises complex ethical and social questions that need to be carefully considered. While the technology has the potential to cure diseases and improve the overall quality of life for future generations, it also carries the risk of creating a society with “designer babies” and potentially widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
Navigating the Future of Human Evolution It is important for society to have open and honest conversations about the potential benefits and risks of gene editing and to ensure that any decisions made about its use are guided by ethical principles.