CRISPR: A Scientific Frontier

Though aspects of biology have been studied for millennia, a promising new technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 has emerged within the last few years, offering the potential to edit genes directly. The emergence of this technology places modern biology in an exciting–and potentially terrifying new frontier; as Michael Specter puts it, “[n]o scientific discovery of the past century holds more promise or raises more troubling ethical questions.” This sentiment seems to be held by much of scientific community, as CRISPR offers up possible cures to genetic diseases and many other problems in humans, plants, and animals. One polarizing aspect of this new technology is its use potential for creating “designer babies” that have been genetically edited to whatever specifications the parents choose. This could include pragmatic gene edits, such as reducing the risk of cancers or blocking certain genetic disabilities from developing, but it could also be used for more arbitrary gene edits, such as ensuring that a particular baby will grow up to be a certain height or have a certain hair color. It soon becomes obvious that the potential to create “designer babies” could lead to a plethora of ethical problems, especially when one takes into account the fact that for these radical gene edits to occur, it is only practical to use CRISPR on human embryos that have not yet developed into very many cells.

Despite the fact that CRISPR conjures up a whole host of ethical concerns, I think that we can still find uses for it while the process is still being perfected. For example, CRISPR can be used on crops and other plants to provide them communities from devastating diseases that could negatively affect the world’s food supply and economy, ultimately raising much less of an ethical concern than if CRISPR were to be used on humans. This technology can be used in a similar capacity with animals, more specifically livestock, while also avoiding the same ethical problems. For now, with CRISPR being in its infancy, I believe it is important to keep an open mind for the beneficial uses that it could provide, while simultaneously being wary of its more polarizing aspects.




2 thoughts on “CRISPR: A Scientific Frontier”

  1. Your mention of designer babies is, I think, one of the more interesting examples of the use of CRISPR technology. In terms of easily predictable and far reaching ecological consequences, it’s one of the more confined possible uses. However, in terms of societal consequences, human gene editing would serve only those who could afford it. As a direct result, I believe that the gap between “rich” and “poor”, would only become more tangible and pronounced. More than a few science fiction movies have dealt with the idea of technology being used as a way of keeping the poor down, and whether or not we would do it intentionally or not, something like that has a high possibility of happening. That being said, I think that gene editing will be a good thing in the long run, I just think that we should be careful in how we use new technologies such as this as the consequences may not always be scientific.

  2. Designer babies are one of the most socially impactful repercussions of widespread use of CRISPR. The reality is, genetic enhancements are going to, at least at first, be only available to the rich, and we’re going to see the discussion of genetic superiority come up once again, turning this into a massive social issue that could have the same tensions as racial discrimination.

    Designer babies should be illegal from the outset in my opinion, but perhaps exceptions can be made to implement the technology only to correct issues (such as birth defects), and enhancements for vanity or improving traits illegal. Going forward, a law that in my opinion that should be put firmly into place that states that any major bodily modification other one done for medical reasons to correct an error should be illegal. This will apply to growing fields like cybernetics as well, since one day it could very well be a reality that a cybernetic arm will be in many ways superior to a weaker and less capable natural one.

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