Humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals for years. All one has to do is look at the GMO ingredients in their lunch special or the increasing number of breeds populating a kennel to behold evidence of mass genetic manipulation. But those feats are relatively small when compared to what is becoming more possible in this rapidly evolving field. Thanks to a recent breakthrough in genetic engineering, a new gene-editing technique called Crispr-Cas9 has unlocked a world of potential when it comes to genetic modification.
The Crispr technique has made genetic modification easier, faster and cheaper than ever before, allowing anyone with some generic knowledge and the proper lab equipment to add, delete or replace genes in any biological substance. Crispr has already been used to fight cancer cells from multiplying, armoring wheat against the plague of mildew, and recently in China, to create the world’s first line of gene-edited dogs. That’s right, China has genetically altered beagles to possess double their normal muscle mass. So if you’re looking for a roided out beagle, book your flight to China immediately.
With the simplicity and efficiency of the Crispr technique, China is focused on gene-editing many more mammals outside of the beagle. Because Crispr is so effective and precise when it comes to modifying genes, and with China’s early success in genetically edited mammals, we could be at the precipice of a genetic revolution of sorts. But with these boundless possibilities for essentially being able to become gods in a laboratory, many are bringing up the ethics behind the process.
“Now it’s something that someone with a BS and a couple thousand dollars’ worth of equipment can do,” Hank Greely, a Stanford University bioethicist, told Wired. “What was impractical is now almost everyday. That’s a big deal.” With the seemingly endless applications of genetic modification, many scientists are foaming at the mouth over altering the genetic makeup of both plants and animals, and potentially people as well. What may not be given as much thought are the consequences of such actions.
For example, researchers are already trying to create a genetically modified mosquito that would produce less offspring and be more resilient to malaria. This could cause a drastic drop off in the population of mosquitos, which would create a ripple effect in the food chain for animals that feast on the insect, such as bats. That is but one in a laundry list of cause and effect scenarios that could occur once we begin to mass produce genetically altered organisms.
The big kahuna of ethical questions arises when attention is turned toward using the Crispr method to genetically modify humans. Imagine being able to select the dominant genes that would make your child smarter, faster and stronger while deleting those that would cause genetic or chromosomal disorders. It’s an undoubtedly fascinating concept, but one that poses many ethical and moral quandaries. Scientists in China already attempted to genetically alter human embryos using Crispr to remove a gene that causes blood disorders. The experiment failed, highlighting that more work needs to be done before we can produce perfect babies like it’s nothing, but bioethicists are already chomping at the bit over the lack of regulation and guidelines over such a venture.
To that end, the National Academy of Sciences recently held a three-day international conference discussing the scientific implications and political issues that arise from editing genes using the Crispr technique, while another conference held by the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research is set to discuss the ethics of using the Crispr method on animals. Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at New York University’s School of Medicine will be leading sessions on ethical and regulatory issues at the latter conference, but is less than optimistic about rules being firmly established to govern the process.
“It’ll take some disaster to do it,” Caplan told The Huffington Post. “Otherwise the tendency is to say ‘Oh well, we’ll see where it goes.’” Where it goes could be both fascinating and frightening. While Crispr and advanced techniques could be employed to eradicate diseases, make healthier babies and engineer livestock and crops to produce more, playing with genes could potentially be used to make some garish creatures out of a sci-fi novel. What bioethicists like Caplan and Greely hope to establish are some firm rules that address the ethical implications of what science is rapidly enabling us to do.