Gene editing has been a hot and controversial topic recently thanks to the discovery of CRISPR Gene Editing. CRISPR, and the plethora of tools discovered along with it has revolutionized the world of genetic manipulation and unlocked the door to a world of possibilities, but should we be afraid of it or should we be embracing it? Dr. Helen O’Neill took to the stage at New Scientist Live to discuss some of the ups and downs of genome editing and helped to dispel some people’s fears.
Let’s start by explaining what gene editing and CRISPR tools are, then we’ll dive right in to the ethics and why it’s probably bad but isn’t really, people just need to lighten up.
Gene editing and manipulation is the process of altering an organism’s genetic material in order to bring about some change to the physical traits by a variety of different mechanisms. This could involve introducing brand new DNA into the organism, giving it properties it never possessed before (eg. the ability to glow in the dark) or it could be the removal of material to stop something developing (eg. an organ or growth defect). These are the two main processes and have the larger, more measurable effects, however, we are also able to manipulate whether or not certain genes get “activated” and allow themselves to be expressed by the organism. This doesn’t involve adding or removing genetic material, just a subtle tweak to get the organism to pay attention to that particular sequence.
CRISPR and other similar gene editing tools are actually enzymes designed by certain organisms as a bacterial immunity mechanism. These enzymes like all enzymes are specific to a certain molecular shape/sequence, allowing them to only target that one sequence with great prejudice. They come along and break the DNA at their specified base sequence allowing the DNA to be essentially cut from the organism’s DNA, preventing the malicious DNA from a foreign body from being transcribed and expressed. Once the pathogenic DNA has been excised, the DNA can be repaired and returned to its normal state.
Genome editing mechanisms such as those of the CRISPR tools have changed the face of genetic manipulation forever. The processes used to be painfully slow, expensive and subject quite largely to random chance on whether an experiment would succeed. The CRISPR tools changed all of that, they’re highly versatile and precise “cutting” tools that are fast acting and cheap to implement. Such an advancement will lead to a huge leap forward in the quality and quantity of successful research projects being conducted into the understanding of genetics.
Groundbreaking discoveries such as CRISPR and its cousins are simply huge. Our understanding of DNA is miles beyond what is was when Francis, Crick and Rosalind discovered the structure, but very much still quite infantile. We know what it looks like and we know how to mess with it, but we still don’t understand so much of how it works or why. Genetic expression in humans is ridiculously complicated and we’re barely able to accurately guess at a child’s hair colour when looking at their parents.
The tools allow us to engage in far more complex experiments that can have far wider ranges of effects than ever before. Investigations into genetic diseases, growth defects and genetic expression are making leaps and bounds in aiding our understanding of various ailments. They are also leading to useful developments in how to successfully treat them before they are able to become an issue.
Around the world, there is an estimated 6% of the population that is suffering with some form of genetic disorder. Most of these individuals are only able to manage the symptoms and implications that the disorder places upon their lives, however with the technologies developed around CRISPR gene editing it may be possible to treat the disorders themselves, removing them completely.
Now as you can no doubt gather from the tone of this article, I for one fully support the research into genome editing and genetic manipulation, however as you can expect, it comes with a whole host of nasty ethical questions and issues. We’ve all seen Jurassic Park, Gattaca and Resident Evil movies where some mad scientist has fooled around with the building blocks of life and created some form of blight upon humanity, be that dinosaurs, pre-determinism or some horrific bioweapon designed to help us all.
Lets start with the issues presented by Gattaca as they’re both the most plausible and most relevant. Our friends from Science(ish) have a fascinating podcast on the topics we’re about to discuss. Gattaca tackles the ideas of “designer babies” and genetic pre-determinism, children are given a heel-prick blood test at birth and this determines pretty much every aspect of their lives. Parents are given the chance to “customise” their child’s features prior to birth like some kind of demented Build-A-Bear Workshop except far more expensive.
So first off, can we design a baby? In theory, it’s entirely possible but in practice far-far from it, at least with our current understanding of genetics and phenotypes. We simply don’t know in all the ways various different genes interact, eye colour is controlled by a collection of genes and manipulating just one may have huge repercussions for the structure of that eye. Technically the technology exists, thanks to CRISPR, to perform such manipulations but at this current moment in time we don’t understand the subject well enough to begin making such claims.
As the movie will show, genetic pre-determinism is pretty much entirely hogwash. Humanity is not limited to just enacting the functions only dictated by its genetics. We are capable of so much more through environmental and behavioural factors, training and hard work are able to overcome a large number of limitations emplaced upon us by our genes. Of course, certain things have crippling implications for the host that physically cannot be overcome. So in that respect, no it’s not really a concern; Performing a full genetic sequencing on an individual is not going to create a profile on someone that will govern every aspect of their life.
Taking a step away from the usual Jurassic Park theme and we’re going to talk about chimeras such as the ones from Jurassic World and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. A chimera is where genetic material from multiple sources is combined together to create one viable creature, in the movie, of course, they do this with dinosaurs and Dr. Malcom’s infamous “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” quote comes in to play. In theory the technology exists that we can create human chimeras by splicing genes from other creatures into our genome to give ourselves gecko-grip hands (read Woken Furies by Richard Morgan) or chameleon skin that can adapt to camouflage ourselves; However again we don’t understand enough about the topic in order to do it safely and not create some weirdass Cronenberg monster.
Scientists have been creating chimeras for decades in order to better understand genetics. We know a lot about the topic, for example, we’re able to grow human liver tissue inside pigs in order to create human-safe insulin for treating diabetic patients. We also know that taking the genes responsible for creating an eye in mice and replacing it with that of a fly does not birth a mouse with compound eyes, but regular ones. Simply taking the gene and throwing it into the host organism does not immediately grant it the traits from the donor, there are far more factors at play here.
Genome editing to the point where we can genetically engineer super-humans with traits and abilities beyond the default squishy human is definitely way beyond our means at the moment. It would come as no surprise if it doesn’t become a possibility in time, but right now we can rest easy. Also, the dinosaurs can’t come back, it’s physically impossible for us to revitalise them from their fossil forms and even if we could the oxygen content in the air is significantly lower than it was and they wouldn’t be able to grow anywhere near as large.
Genetically engineered super weapons are also one of the big fears to come from the Genome Editing Revolution. Just how plausible are they? Well… scarily plausible actually but we’re kinda taking it on faith no-one is dumb enough to try it. Humans have been messing with the genetic make up of viruses and bacteria for decades, it’s how we have so many broadly effective vaccines available to help immunise the populace from diseases like measles and protect against things like the flu in winter. The brainey folk who know way more about this, and hopefully what they are doing, will tweak a pathogen in the lab to create vaccines against mutant strains of the target, giving the vaccine the best chance at being effective.
So with that in mind, there are existing vaccines for a wide range of different diseases, one being that of smallpox. Smallpox is massively destructive or at least it would be if we hadn’t vaccinated against it and made it our bitch. However in the wrong hands and tweaked beyond our vaccine’s capabilities to detect and then you’d best go shopping for body bags! Tom Clancy’s The Division paints a very accurate picture of what a genetically engineered superbug could do when released, but there are a huge number of safeguards in place surrounding access to live samples of pathogens intended for study.
Not to mention that anyone who plays with this kind of thing runs the risk of infecting themselves with the disease first, killing themselves before it gets off the ground. Anyone wanting to mess with this kind of thing is taking some serious risks with their own life, which depending on their mindset they could be just fine with that, a blaze of glory/remember my legacy kind of deal. As well as that, people working on the vaccines and have access to these kinds of nasties tend to be the type who are looking to help people rather than hurt them. It would take a pretty significant mental break to switch that flip and make them go back on everything that they stand for, stranger things have happened but it’s very unlikely to occur.
Genetic manipulation comes with a whole host of other ethical concerns too, the most debated is the stance on screening DNA for genetic disease in order to treat them. This has a range of repercussions ranging from invasive procedures to potentially affecting future health insurance costs. On the one hand, if we screen an unborn child’s DNA and detect a genetic disease and have the ability to treat it early on so it never develops into an issue, infinitely improving the child’s quality of life, surely we are obligated to do so? What if this information then gets to an insurance company in the future and is used against the individual?
These are some of the quite serious concerns facing the field of Genomics. When screening and editing out the genetic diseases where do we draw the line? Is it a free service offered to all expectant parents or will it become an exclusive service only offered to those who can afford it? Who gets to make that decision? What happens if the screening raises a collection of issues that show the child won’t survive at all? What happens then?
The final argument surrounding genome editing and genetic manipulation is an increasingly hot topic for some ridiculous reason; Genetically Modified Foods. Everyone freaks out around the topic of GM crops as something terrible for humanity, but GM crops are already everywhere. We’ve been selectively breeding plants and animals for the best yields for thousands of years, that’s genetic modification at its most basic level. We’ve been making crops hardier and able to survive in different climates for years. The fact of the matter is that without our genetic tinkering over the years, the human population would not have been able to support itself in the size that it is today. Of course, the argument can be made that world hunger is still an issue and therefore it can’t support itself but world hunger is dependent on many different variables; It would also be a far bigger issue had we not been manipulating our crops to produce bigger and more nutrient rich yields in less time.
You’ll likely find that all the people campaigning against the use of genetically modified foods have no idea what a natural strawberry, potato, melon, carrot or any other common household fruit and vegetables used to look like. They’re also likely the ones who only go organic but have a pug at home, because genetically modifying a dog to have severe health issues because it looks “cute” is totally fine.
Bunch of savages.
Circling back to the point! CRISPR gene editing tools are re-shaping the modern understanding of genetics in a big way. They don’t just change the game but have the potential to re-write the entire playbook, something I’m very excited to see happen. It has a lot of potentials to help but also has the potential to cause some major harm. The important part is going to come from legislating who can do what and when. Licenses to perform research into gene editing on live patients are exceptionally hard to obtain and require the most stringent of checks, and until we work out all the kinks and figure this shit out properly? That’s exactly how it should stay.