Last April, a Chinese group of researchers published a paper that set the scientific world ablaze in a fierce debate. The paper was about their attempts to edit the DNA of a human embryo.
Scientists warned that altering the human genome line without thoroughly considering and researching into the consequences could bring about unintended, unpredictable and possibly terrifying results.
From dangerous mutations and painful deaths to political opportunism and genetic-social engineering, it is easy to imagine terrifying and dystopian outcomes to this technological advance. And it's all due to CRISPRs: clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.
Genetic manipulation can now be performed on plants, bacteria and animals. Discovered a few years ago, CRISPRs are - to put it succinctly - elements of a system that protects bacteria and other single-celled organisms from viruses. They acquire this immunity by incorporating genetic information from the attacking bodies. For millions of years of evolution, CRISPRs took pieces of genetic information from one being's genome and inserted it into that of another.
This method happens to also represent a quick, cheap and effective way for editing genome, artificially, in the lab.
So, in order to edit DNA, one no longer requires thousands of dollars, human resources nor sophisticated laboratories. With CRISPRs, a lab needs only an RNA fragment - priced at about 10$ - and a set of common chemicals and enzymes for about 30$. On the lab, CRISPRs then uses a specific enzyme - Cas9 - that lodges itself on a particular location within a strand of DNA. From there on, the process unfolds in a way that either removes or inserts sequences into the DNA strand - intentionally.
The convenience and affordability of CRISPR has revolutionized and democratized genetic research in an unparalleled way. Hundreds of labs worldwide are now experimenting with CRISPR based projects, and a sort of "genetic gold rush" is well underway, with major research institutions seeking to grab a hold of CRISPR related patents. Big fundings are also pouring, with leading institutions acknowledging the commercial potential of these findings. Yet, this is also the scary part.
Ethical problems appear when we consider the prospects of genome modification. On one side, millions of cases where diseases have genetic roots could be dealt with effectively. On the other, the risk of mutations and unintentional side effects also looms close by. New and unimagined diseases could result from tweaking with the script of life. On the hands of those with foul intentions, these tools could result in a powerful, amplified form of biological warfare and terrorism.
On another hand, the commodification of the most basic blocks of human constituency could end up becoming a reality. We could very well be looking at a future where we can purchase the possibility to choose how we want our children to be. Yet no one is prepared for a future in which trait selection becomes as widespread and easy as picking some milk off a shelf on a supermarket. Biological inequalities may end up reflecting economic ones, with wealthier people being able to access higher quality service and eventually children with higher intelligence and beauty (at least according to the standards of contemporary culture).
There is no legislation in regards to DNA editing, and very little investigation has been done. There is no institutionalized way to manage the potential risks of these developments. No laws, no rights nor duties. It's an open field, and as such, it's fair game for multinational research companies looking to become the big fish in a new lake.
As such, it is as if we are, on the issue of genetic engineering as well as on so many others nowadays, way beyond the point of no return. Many equate genetic engineering with the Original Sin of the book of Genesis - the sin that caused the downfall of Man.
Human nature is now on the brink of becoming biologically manipulatable. In little over ten thousand years, we went from natural selection to artificial selection, and now may be on the brink of intentionally interfering with the genome of the following generations. The Ubermensch of this new era will be conceived on a lab.
Source: Singularity HUB