Imagine this hypothetical situation. There are two pregnant mothers, each with Baby A and Baby B. Baby A is healthy, while Baby B has a high chance of inheriting sickle cell anemia, a genetic disorder with dangers of causing an early death. You are a scientist, currently making the decision upon publishing a new technology that would cure the baby, extending her life by 30 years.
In this situation, you would most likely decide on publishing with no hesitance — but here’s a twist. Researching further into the technology, you have found that while there is the chance of it curing the baby and even improving his/her intelligence, one error could aggravate the disorder. Just then, you receive a report that more than half of the global population cannot afford your technology because it is costly. Now, what is your decision?
According to the book, “CRISPR, A Crack in Creation”, the dilemmas presented in this situation are only few of what Jennifer Doudna had faced throughout her journey of developing CRISPR, a prominent gene editing tool. Biotechnology has become a popular subject of discussion among scientists as well as those of other professions. It has the potential to solve innumerable challenges the modern society will face in the future, from famine to cancer. Bt-corn, stem cells, and CRISPR are a few major examples, yet they barely scratch the surface of what is to happen over the next century.
Bt-corn is a genetically modified organism(GMO) with enhanced resistance to pests. It contains genetic material from a protein called Bt delta endotoxin, in the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. Ric Bissen, an Entomologist of the University of Kentucky has written that through inserting the Bt delta endotoxins protein (with a promoter and marker gene) into the corn’s genetic sequence, scientists were able to create corn that also reflects the bacteria’s trait of killing larvae. Using this technique, an eclectic variety of field crops such as soybeans and potatoes have also become resistant to pests. With the evolution of pesticide resistant crops, Bt products are also viewed positively because they serve as a replacement for the overuse of pesticide.
Along with Bt-corn, stem cells have been established as a leading solution to the approaching global food crisis. In 2013, the first cultured meat burger patty had been introduced. According to Scientific American, scientists grew muscle fiber out of stem cells that were extracted from the tissue of cows, which would later be colored, minced, and turned into the burger patty. These burger patties are not likely to be served soon as they are continuously being developed and tested by numerous industries, to ensure a more juicy taste. However, because stem cells are immature cells, they engage in cell division and grow multiple times more actively than normal cells, promising a more productive and efficient meat production system.
CRISPR, an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is the most renowned gene editing tool. Through observing the unusual behavior of the e.coli bacteria when being infected by a virus, scientists have found that short identical sequences repeat in its gene, which was later to be named CRISPR. CRISPR works through the process where scientists use a guide RNA(gRNA) that finds and binds to the target sequence. Next, the cas9 nuclease binds with the gRNA and cuts and pastes, enabling scientists to edit the genetic sequence freely. Thus, through using CRISPR, scientists are now able to identify mutations and eliminate genetic disorders as well as possibly editing and enhancing one’s intelligence, strength, and appearance.
While CRISPR is internationally acclaimed as the next innovation that would help solve many dilemmas predicted in the future, scientists worry that other, more complicated situations will arise. First, CRISPR, along with many more developing genetic engineering techniques, lacks accuracy and precision. While the gRNA attempts to identify the target sequence so that the cas9 nuclease can create breaks or ‘cuts’ in the correct place, as the DNA is composed of 3 billion nucleotide bases, errors happen in the process of the gRNA’s reading.
According to Nature Cell Death & Disease, this results in a high-efficiency break in unwanted parts of the gene, which is also known as off-target. This is a great problem, as editing with CRISPR on embryos could result in germ-line editing, meaning that the changes made will be passed onto future generations. As these possible problems are yet to be known, it is important to be cautious that using the technology can also hinder our evolution. Beyond scientific dilemmas exist moral and ethical issues.
Due to lack of development and like any other newly introduced technological tool, CRISPR is costly, which creates benefits only for the wealthy and those who are able to afford the products. Statistically speaking, currently even costs of CRISPR genome editing of a mouse($8,400 according to the Yale Genome Editing Center) exceed the average global monthly income of $1,480(according to the BBC in 2012). It is undeniable that there are differences in the opportunities one gets depending on his/her economic levels, but enabling the wealthy to inherit superior genes will completely eliminate a chance of fair competition; therefore, a greater social conflict may result.
It is no doubt that technological advancement has benefited the world positively, creating efficiency, beautifying us, and many more. With the introduction of scientific tools such as CRISPR, we will be moving onto another chapter in the life of humanity. Yet, it may be wise to step aside and be aware of the potential of what we are holding in our hands, as we advance forward. This is an important decision to make as future citizens. So, now what is your choice? Do you press the publishing button?