The Profound Implications of Gene Editing
“Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun” – Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) in the Jurassic Park
In Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park, scientists resurrect dinosaurs by splicing fossilized dinosaur DNA into frog DNA. It was perhaps the first-time genetic engineering entered the popular consciousness.
In 2012, research teams lead by Nobel prize winning scientists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier discovered CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat), an ancient defense mechanism used by bacteria to detect and destroy invading viruses. Along with Feng Zhang, they proposed using the Cas9 protein as a programmable tool to edit DNA in human beings.
In 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui used CRISPR to make germline edits to the two embryos to make them immune to the HIV virus. Germline edits unlike somatic cell edits are heritable and passed on to future generations.
The genie has been let out the bottle. I don’t think most people realize the full import of the developments above. For the first time in the history of life, a species has found a way to hack the code of life. Genetic destiny would no longer dictated by random chance, human beings have discovered the tools to engineer our own genetic destiny.
What are the implications of this technology?
On one side are incontrovertible benefits, permanent cures to genetic diseases like sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis and Huntington disease.
On the other end of the spectrum – designer babies. A future where you can first eliminate the likelihood of genetic disorders and then endow your children with desirable qualities like higher intelligence or greater physical strength.
This could have massive ramifications on society and on our species.
All parents want the best for their children, so there is a valid argument to let parents choose the gene edits they want to make to their children. What would this lead to in a country like India with an obsession for fair skin? Would India become a country of fair skinned people? This is most certainly not a desirable or beneficial development.
All parents want their children to be smarter. Would this lead to rich people who can afford expensive gene editing bearing smarter offspring? One could argue this exacerbates social inequality, but if one were to take a utilitarian perspective, wouldn’t humanity be better off if there were more Einsteins and Mozarts?
Just like any new technology, gene editing will be accessible only to the economic elite initially, over time as the costs decline it will become accessible to everyone. Are we willing to live with the interim social consequences of this?
Many ethicists would consider these consequences as anathema and call for strict regulation on such gene editing research. Perhaps a strict line should be drawn preventing research on non-essential, non-disease treating genetic research – but is a global moratorium on such research possible?
If a country chooses to break ranks and genetically enhance their population, there is a clear path to genetic supremacy for one nation or ethnicity. The Nazis thoughts Aryan supremacy was genetic destiny, there is now the technology to make national or ethnic supremacy a reality.
These questions boggle my mind. How we as a society addresses these questions will determine the future of our species. It is high time we start thinking deeply about the most consequential issue the human race has ever faced.