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Gene Editing: A Road To Prosperity Or Ethical Dilemmas?

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Throughout the world there are many dangers to the health of humans—war, climate change, and resource scarcity are just a few. However, one of the largest threats to the well-being of the human species is disease. Specifically, genetical diseases such as those that infants are born with. With these diseases come scientific endeavors to try and remedy the illnesses. One of these innovations is gene editing, which is also associated with the name CRISPR-Cas9. Gene editing involves changing the make-up of human DNA. The reason that DNA is the focus of this gene editing is that it is what makes up and determines who each human being is—their hair color, height, how many toes they have, etc. Thus, DNA is also the reason that genetic disorders exist. Changes in the way DNA’s components are put together can cause different diseases to exist in people. A few ways that this happens is by mutations in a single gene, mutation in many genes, or differences in the number of chromosomes a person has compared to the normal amount (genome.gov). These genes or components are made up of DNA itself (nih.gov). However, through gene editing techniques like CRISPR, these mutations and areas of abnormal DNA sequences can be manipulated to remove the disease and even change the physical/physiological nature of a person (nih.gov).

But where did gene editing start? The actual answer is complicated as gene editing was founded on the work of early scientists such as Watson & Crick on the shape of DNA. However, the CRISPR-Cas9 technique was first pioneered by scientists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuel Charpentier whose discovery was later expanded on and improved by a scientist named Feng Zhang here in America (Fridovich-Keil). The CRISPR technique itself involves using RNA to identify specific areas of DNA strands which is then cut and modified through the use of an enzyme (most commonly the Cas9 enzyme). Once the DNA sequence is cut it is then changed to the specifications of the scientist performing the work. It is important to note that genome editing is not a common practice yet in contemporary science, but rather is still being examined and researched.

Today, genome editing is mainly a causative and experimental science. This is due to the studies being done which focus on the actual effects of CRISPR. Studies revolve around attempting to change human DNA and delete sections of genes so that diseases can be eradicated (nih.gov). One example of this is a study conducted to try and correct a heart condition caused by a gene labeled HCM. After the use of CRISPR technology on human embryos, it was found that only a small amount of the infants born carried the HCM defect while most turned out healthy (Tangermann). Further, studies have been done to help turn animal organs into viable organs for humans by editing the DNA of animals (Hayasaki). This involves manipulation of animal genes so that animal bodies are used to grow human organs such as hearts and lungs (Hayasaki). These two examples show how CRISPR technology is being used in practice and looking at causing specific effects to help affect positive change in human health sciences.

While CRISPR may sound like a promising and wholly positive scientific advancement, in reality it has caused its own controversies. While CRISPR very well may lead to the eradication of genetic disease and improvements in organ transplants, it could also lead to the ethically questionable practice of eugenics. In fact, this is one of the largest areas of concern and opposition to genome editing.

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What are eugenics? Eugenics is defined as the “practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations to improve the population’s genetic composition” (“Eugenics”). In other words, it is the attempt to pick out the most preferred characteristics for humans and future generations. While this may not seem malicious at first, it is only necessary to take a look back at the Nazi regime’s use of violence and selective murder to try and leave the German population with only the best race to survive in order to see the problem (history.com). The same worry presents itself with genome editing because of its potential to lead to a movement of curating humans. This would fall along the lines of Hitler’s move to only keep alive individuals with specific physical characteristics where scientists would edit humans to only have specific physical characteristics. Moreover, it leads to the worry of a decrease in acceptance and tolerance for people who are already disabled due to their genetical makeup (Christiansen). A desire to genetically modify a ‘perfect species’ could also lead to an intolerance of those who don’t possess these ‘perfect’ attributes. The curated generation would become the norm and so those who are already struggling to be seen as normal would be outcast as abnormal. These worries lead to the opposition towards CRISPR and what critics see as the potential tool for eugenics.

But what is the flipside of this debate? CRISPR, while it presents the danger of eugenics, also brings the potential for life-saving treatments and much more. The first potential benefit of CRISPR is the aforementioned chance that it could be used to edit genes so genetic diseases are avoided/eradicated (Tangermann). Secondly, it could lead to healthier and more plentiful amounts of food like GMO’s (Niiler). Like GMOs, fruits and vegetables could be modified to be bigger and more nutritious. Not only this, but gene edited foods could provide higher farm yields and also withstand harder climates like droughts. This would be a step up from GMO’s, however, due to the cheaper and simpler technique of CRISPR editing. Because of its simplicity, companies would not hold expensive patents to GMO seeds as farmers would have other avenues of acquiring genetically modified foods. Finally, CRISPR could help revive dead species such as the wooly mammoth (Ryan). By replacing modern ‘relative’ animals’ genes with the genes of extinct species, those same dead species could be resurrected. This would allow important extinct species to be brought back and biodiversity to be maintained. Altogether, these are benefits that are used to oppose criticism of CRISPR and gene editing as a whole which are asserted to be potentially species-altering technologies.

So, what should come out of these debates? From an objective standpoint, I believe that CRISPR and gene editing should be used in society today. This is due to the great potential benefits that they could provide. While I do not dispute that these innovations could lead to higher intolerances of those who are disabled and that it may even spur on eugenics, I think that proper control through education of the public and social awareness movements is possible. This would allow for an offset of the negative effects of the use of gene editing. In essence, ethical concerns could be managed while not hindering a potential life-saving technology from being used. Thus, I don’t see this as a yes/no debate, but rather as a “finding the balance” debate.

At the end of this discussion it is important to remember what impact gene editing could have on society, businesses, and individuals. At an individual level, it is clear that gene editing could provide health benefits by making food more accessible while simultaneously preventing disease. At the level of businesses, gene editing could be turned into an industry where a new economy could form to benefit other industries and boost the economic well-being of the world. Further, businesses could provide more products/services at a cheaper cost if materials that aren’t abundantly available could be as a result of gene editing. For society, CRISPR and gene-editing could unlock ways to guarantee humanity’s survivability and help lead to other scientific discoveries of DNA and why humans are the way we are. Thus, gene editing could culminate in a new golden era for humanity.

Bibliography

  1. Christiansen, K. Genome editing: Are we opening a back door to eugenics? Retrieved from http://sciencenordic.com/genome-editing-are-we-opening-back-door-eugenics
  2. Eugenics. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/eugenics
  3. Fridovich-Keil, J. L. Gene editing. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/science/gene-editing
  4. Genetic Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.genome.gov/For-Patients-and-Families/Genetic-Disorders
  5. Hayasaki, E. (2019, March 22). Better Living Through Crispr: Growing Human Organs in Pigs. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/belmonte-crispr-human-animal-hybrid-organs/
  6. History.com Editors. (2017, November 15). Eugenics. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/germany/eugenics
  7. Niiler, E. (2018, August 29). Why Gene Editing Is the Next Food Revolution. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/future-of-food/food-technology-gene-editing/
  8. Ryan, J. Using CRISPR to resurrect the woolly mammoth. Retrieved from https://www.cnet.com/features/using-crispr-to-resurrect-the-dead/
  9. Tangermann, V. (2019, January 9). A CRISPR future: five ways gene editing will transform our world. Retrieved from https://futurism.com/crispr-genetic-engineering-change-world
  10. What are genome editing and CRISPR-Cas9? – Genetics Home Reference – NIH. Retrieved from https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/genomicresearch/genomeediting

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Gene Editing: A Road To Prosperity Or Ethical Dilemmas? (2022, February 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 7, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/gene-editing-a-road-to-prosperity-or-ethical-dilemmas/
“Gene Editing: A Road To Prosperity Or Ethical Dilemmas?” Edubirdie, 21 Feb. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/gene-editing-a-road-to-prosperity-or-ethical-dilemmas/
Gene Editing: A Road To Prosperity Or Ethical Dilemmas? [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/gene-editing-a-road-to-prosperity-or-ethical-dilemmas/> [Accessed 7 Dec. 2022].
Gene Editing: A Road To Prosperity Or Ethical Dilemmas? [Internet] Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 21 [cited 2022 Dec 7]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/gene-editing-a-road-to-prosperity-or-ethical-dilemmas/
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