Gene editing is a recent buzz word, not surprising given that this technology is right on the cusp of its inflection point. Just as the mid-late 1900s were the era of physics and space travel, the 21st century is looking to be an era of synthetic biology.
And as with any major technological advancement, people are generally divided on whether to pursue them. People initially feared the printing press believing it would release a barrage of information. We feared computers worrying they would take jobs. And both of those clearly turned out fine. But we also feared chemical warfare and atomic bombs … and we could have done without those.
In hindsight it is easy to see what technologies we would have been better not investigating, but the central question is: can we be proactive and predict and mitigate the risks of our technologies?
Gene editing is subject to this central question and somehow we need to decide, globally, whether this will become the greatest achievement to date or will fundamentally change our world for the worst. And with new papers being released every day on the wide ranging capabilities of CRISPR, it is clear this is a pressing concern.
The problem is, most people fall into one of two extremes. They are either strong proponents of gene editing, or passionately opposed. This leaves little room for a more nuanced grey scale. And further, I argue the biggest concern is that the majority of these opinions are not actually based upon fact, but built upon personal interests or fear mongering campaigns.
Who runs all the studies on the ethicality or implications of gene editing? Researchers who have built their careers upon this technology, funded by corporations with an interest in seeing it succeed. Of course it will be biased.
Yet the anti gene editing campaigns do no better. They rely on fake science to scare the American public. Why? Because it works. But to those who know at least basic science, arguments that “eating meat with the anti-freeze protein will make you anti-freeze” simply make them immediately mistrustful.
I am not here to tell you whether we should continue researching gene editing, or how much is okay. My entire point is that this is something we all need to be thinking about because it has the possibility to impact every aspect of life. I simply hope to present a statements of fact, something sorely lacking from the media coverage.
Possibilities of Gene Editing
- Altering a person’s genome to cure genetic diseases — sickle cell disease, blindness, AIDS, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s disease, etc.
- Altering the mosquito population to prevent the spread of malaria
- Stem cells — a study from February 2019 demonstrated San Francisco scientists’ success in creating pluripotent stem cells that are “invisible” to the immune system which reduces the chances of transplant rejects
- Cure cancer — so far 86 people in China have been cured using gene editing and the first U.S. clinical trial began April 2019
- Designer babies — in August 2019, a Chinese scientist claimed he had genetically modified human embryos to make them immune to HIV, smallpox, and cholera
- More nutritious foods — e.g. Golden Rice (website here), a vitamin enhanced rice, developed in 1999, but only approved for cultivation in 2018 by the U.S. and Canada
- Increased agricultural yield (more food per plant)
- “Better” plants — pesticide resistance, tastier, longer shelf life, less browning, seedless
- Engineer organisms to neutralize sewage systems and contaminated water to provide adequate sanitation and clean water
- Engineer organism to consume the harmful products in oil spills, air pollution, and plastics
- Organisms that can produce higher quantities of bioplastics — bioplastics are degradable and can be created naturally through natural processes such as fermentation making them much healthier for the environment
- Plants with improved nitrogen fixation and carbon dioxide sequestration
- Plants with increased capabilities as biofuels — researchers have been able to double the biofuel production of some algae. People have also edited yeast cells, important in the sugar → biofuel fermentation process, to protect them from the high metabolism rates.
Concerns of Gene Editing
The major problems all stem from the fact that we don’t entirely know how any of this works so it’s hard to predict how things may go wrong.
- The current success rate for most applications is not high enough to justify human experimentation. (That does not mean that we should use animals as our test subjects instead, but that’s a separate topic)
- We don’t know what all of our genome does (in fact only ~8.2% is thought to be functional) so if we accidentally edit other “dead” parts of the genome, who knows what will happen in the future.
- There may be no apparent side effects now, but what about several generations later? Is it possible that we might inadvertently mess something up for our grandchildren?
- For plants and animals: what effect will the altered organism have on its ecosystem? We all know about the complicated webs connecting organisms — introducing a hardier plant may out compete the native ones and shift the balance of the ecosystem. In general, the further from possibly naturally evolving a trait is, the greater the likelihood that it will cause complications. For example, a drought resistant plant is more likely to have evolved via natural selection than an anti-freeze tropical bird.
- The most extreme example is reviving extinct species. That is a bad idea. We have no idea what would happen if we randomly introduced a woolly mammoth into the wild. Predators? Prey? Not to mention the animal cruelty of all of the failed woolly mammoths that would get created in the process.
- Designer babies: where do we draw the line between preventing a life threatening or debilitating disease (e.g. Huntington’s disease), superficial characteristics (e.g. hair color), and super powers (e.g. super strength)? Who is going to regulate and enforce the rules? How can we ensure that people with disabilities will not be discriminated against — if we as a society decide that blindness is “bad” and all blind babies are edited, what if your parents chose not to or couldn’t afford to and you were blind? How can we prevent the creation of super soldiers? How can we protect people from being taken advantage of? These are just some of the many questions that become raised as soon as we open the door to wide spread human genome editing.
- What can we do to prevent gene editing from becoming yet another tool to widen the gap between the have’s and have not’s?
- The edited genes may spread farther than intended. Plant seeds released into the wind will stray beyond their origin farm. It is possible there could be adverse consequences to them reacting to that new environment or being used to pollinate surrounding plants.
- This can also exacerbate our problem of monocultures. Already almost all of the (commercially) available bananas etc. are monocultures meaning that the species is susceptible to wipeout every time it becomes infected with a fungus for example. Genetically modified organisms will only make species more uniform. Although we would be able to continually edit the genes to make them immune to the current disease, this doesn’t solve the root issue.
- Large corporate scandals. The main one, Monsanto, had sooo many ethical problems. First they modified their seeds to be more pesticide resistant, thus farmers would be able to spray more pesticide, also sold by Monsanto, on their farms. So it’s not only a money making scheme, but it’s also bad for the environment. Secondly, Monsanto patented the seeds. In other words, if a farmer bought GMO seeds, and grew the crop, he did not then own the resulting seeds that grew; he could neither sell nor plant them. This disrupted the traditional cyclic process and hurt farmers. Further, if a farmer’s plant seeds were carried by the wind to a neighbor’s yard, the farmer would be liable for the resulting plant. And Monsanto actively checked for this, again to make money.
Yes I was more specific and detailed with the downsides, but not because we shouldn’t explore gene editing. I wrote this because 99% of genetic engineering headlines will tell you about some crazy new break through and about why we should get excited about genetic engineering. And that makes sense, because the people supporting and doing the studies are the people that want to see this field continue. To me what has been lacking is science based arguments about the possible concerns from blindly walking into this. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think we should just shrug and hope it works out … because if something bad does happen, it’ll be pretty hard to undo.
Genetic engineering holds so much possibility, but also so much uncertainty and risk. As the science and technology advances, so must public education and policies within the scientific community and government.
So my advice is:
- Do not believe everything you see and hear, use your own judgement
- Consider the other side (whatever your side is)
- Find your own balance between risk and reward
- Be excited and wary
Hope you found this article useful! If you’d like to talk about gene editing, its implications, and ethicality, feel free to email me at email@example.com.