Something About CRISPR, Gene Drive, and What Makes Us Human

The combination of gene drive and CRISPR, as described in “DNA Revolution”, is a technology that I find both exhilarating and frightening. The ability to make a specific mutation, then propagate that mutation through a population means we could stop insects from spreading disease like the mosquitos worked on by Anthony James. (Specter, 2) We could stop the spread of malaria and Lyme disease, or modify crops to be more nutritious. These are global problems that could be solved through CRISPR and gene drive. However, this tech also has some frightening potential consequences. “Scientists also realized that if they could transfer DNA between species, they might inadvertently shift viruses and other pathogens too. That could cause unanticipated diseases, for which there would be no natural protection, treatment, or cure.” (Specter, 2) Gene drives also have the potential to force an unwanted mutation throughout a population. “James is acutely aware that releasing a mutation designed to spread quickly through a wild population could have unanticipated consequences that might not be easy to reverse.” (Specter, 2) The idea of a harmful mutation rapidly and nearly uncontrollably spreading through a population is rather disconcerting. However, that shouldn’t completely deter us from experimenting and identifying what we can with the CRISPR, gene drive combo. The power of these two technologies is immense, we just have to know how and when to use them.

The question of whether or not we should gene edit humans has no easy answer. As John Harris suggests, using gene editing to cure genetic disease is a prospect we cannot simply pass up. The ability to eradicate some diseases is a major point for gene editing, and it is one I support. Eliminating cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, sickle cell anemia, and many other diseases would be a huge boon to future generations. Edits like these, I believe, are good for humans. However, I do not think we should be using gene edits to “enhance” people. Marcy Darnovsky makes a good point when addressing how to draw the line between a medical application and a genetic enhancement. How do we draw the line? If we cure someone of a genetic disease, is that technically enhancing their germline? Darnovsky also makes an argument regarding “children with financially or socially “efficient” varieties of height and complexion” (Harris and Darnovsky, 4) and whether or not to consider these edits “medical” in nature. While some people may argue they are, I would argue the contrary. Changing a child’s height, skin tone, or any other physical feature is not fixing a disease. Gene editing has the potential to wipe genetic disease from the planet, but it also has the potential to physically change our species in profound ways. This issue is one in which I stand in the gray, as I cannot see the black and white. As Eric Lander said, “Scientists do not have standing to answer these questions, and I am not sure who does.” (Specter, 2)

1 thought on “Something About CRISPR, Gene Drive, and What Makes Us Human”

  1. Nicely put Ty! The cure that CRISPR promises for entomological pathogens like Malaria and Lyme disease is fascinating and certainly a worthy undertaking. It amazes me how scientists can edit the biological processes with such reliable results. I’d argue that gene drive is the defining technology of our lifetimes. I certainly agree with your second paragraph on the ethics of CRISPR usage. Curing genetic disease and suffering is ethical in my opinion. However, forcing aesthetic or “medical” changes in the germline such as height, skin tone, etc. is going too far. Imposing our cultural notions of what physical traits are best on future generations is risky business. Perhaps CRISPR is to powerful and efficient. Humans may not be worthy to possess such a tool.

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