Do you dream of world domination using an army with enhanced military capabilities?
What about eliminating a whole population of those irksome disease-carrying mosquitos?
Maybe curing HIV?
Or having blue-eyed, blonde haired, little Einsteins?
SNP-SNP, here’s CRISPR!
CRISPR is a novel gene-editing tool that has created much buzz among the scientific community for the past couple of years. This tool has the ability to “snip out a piece of DNA at any point on the genome” and then “neatly stitch the ends back together”.
Essentially, this tool allows scientists to replace, mutate, add or remove any number of genes in any organism. They can do this quickly, efficiently and at a fraction of current gene-editing costs, making CRISPR a tool with formidable potential.
In scientific fields, CRISPR could expedite studies and reduce their costs bringing beneficial products like new drugs to the market faster. It could tackle more complex studies that require editing of many genes across a variety of cell types or organisms.
It could even be used for gene drives that spread a natural or artificially induced genetic mutation through a population very quickly. These gene drives could be used to eliminate invasive species such as the Asian carp in the Great Lakes or disease carrying organisms like malarial mosquitoes. They could even be used to eliminate diseases such as HIV or cancers.
However, with these benefits come risks. CRISPR could cause a lot of harm because it is hard to control. Currently, any individual or company can use this technology without restriction!
A graduate student was able to engineer a virus that could carry CRISPR into mice through the breath and induce mutations to create a model for human lung cancer. Though proper precautionary measures were taken, any mistake in this high-risk experiment could have resulted in human beings inhaling the virus and having the mutations induced in their lungs, effectively giving them lung cancer.
Mutagenic chain reactions, an inherited mechanism that “speeds up how quickly a mutated species is produced”, could do much harm to ecosystems if mutants escape into the wild as they could introduce mutations in every plant or animal in the population. Further, these effects are probably irreversible. Irreversibility is a big problem, especially when considering how gene drives and mutagenic chain reactions could impact the food web and the predator-prey equilibrium.
The usage of CRISPR forms many ethical quandaries since we do not know the side effects of editing genes on the mutant itself or the wider environment.
Is it ethically justifiable to destabilize the food web through gene drives?
These types of questions will have to be debated and answered as this technology develops and our understanding increases.
Further dilemmas will arise as CRISPR-based products come into the market. One of the main concerns is that of designer babies. In the future, CRISPR may have developed to an extent where parents would be able to choose certain traits or characteristics they want in their children.
As we operate in a market-based economy, chances are that this procedure will be expensive and only rich parents will be able to afford it. With their superior skills and abilities, these children would be more likely to succeed in society, increasing the gap between the rich and poor. Moreover, it would create a separation between the classes based in a physical reality.
CRISPR also has an unsettling amount of military potential. It could be used to create a biological weapon for example, by editing the genes of viruses or bacteria to produce a toxic substance that could cause instant death to any living organism it invades. In the future, (though admittedly this sounds far-fetched) it could be used to edit human embryos and engineer more mentally and physically powerful soldiers. These developments would take warfare to a whole new level.
CRISPR opens the door to an enormous number of possibilities. But like most new technologies these possibilities can do both good and harm. Laws and regulations on the usage of CRISPR have to be put in place as quickly as possible so that ethical boundaries are not crossed as the various avenues of CRISPR are explored.
For now, it may be better to stick to CRISPR as a research tool rather than a technology to be marketed to the masses.
Kahn, J., 2015. The CRISPR Quandary – The New York Times. The New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/magazine/the-CRISPR-quandary.html?_r=0 [Accessed March 25, 2016].
Ledford, H., 2015. CRISPR, the disruptor. Nature, 522(7554), pp.20–24. Available at: http://www.nature.com/news/CRISPR-the-disruptor-1.17673 [Accessed June 3, 2015].