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Should Human Genetic Engineering Continue?

Genome DNA

Think of a society where you can choose the characteristics of your child: eye or skin color, or even intelligence?  Sounds like science fiction or the worst excesses of the eugenics movement. However, technologically achieving this type of thing is very close.

Such technology poses ethical questions. For these reasons, back in April 2015, a group of scientists wrote to the journal Science and demanded a moratorium on germline gene engineering. This referred to experiments where the human genome is modified and where such modifications can be passed onto future generations.

The main concern was with a biotechnology called CRISPR/Cas9. This gene manipulation tool allows for the removal of undesirable genes and for the insertion of desirable ones, recalling the plot of the movie Splice. The real-world technology works by using RNA that recognize specific sequences of DNA and then mutating the DNA at those precise locations.


Diagram of the possible mechanism for CRISPR (Credits: James Atmos)

Two years on from the ethical concerns, most of the signatories of the Science letter are saying that it is time to consider how to take the technology forwards. Here they have devised a four-point action plan.

These actions are:

  • Maintain a hold on clinical applications.
  • Create some expert forums.
  • Ensure that all research is transparent.
  • Establish a globally representative group to recommend policy approaches.

Commenting on this, Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology, told The Guardian that she supports a cautious approach but also that there could be advantages with the technology: “Prudence demands that we marshal the full force of democracy to imagine the lives we want. Otherwise we will find ourselves governed by technologies whose implications we did not foresee and whose development we chose to neglect.”

In related news, soon doctors in Boston as set to announce that they have sequenced the entire genome of a newborn baby. They aim to genetically map 240 babies in total.  The focus is one understanding and collating childhood diseases. This throws up similar ethical questions. In particular, what will be done with such information? What is it is shown that a baby will contract a serious disease when older? What will happen when a baby grows up an realizes that he or she hasn’t given consent to a genetic map being produced?

About the author

Tim Sandle

Dr. Tim Sandle is a chartered biologist and holds a first class honours degree in Applied Biology; a Masters degree in education; and has a doctorate from Keele University.