What if there were no more genetic disorders? For years, people have pondered whether it is possible to create a perfectly healthy human, free from any defects. Scientists may have found a way to begin this journey with a new piece of technology, CRISPR (clustered, regularly interspaced, short palindromic repeat). Genetic modification research can lead to life-changing discoveries, but it walks the fine line of ethics in today’s society. While these kinds of experimentations lead to some of the greatest advancements in technology, scientists need to set boundaries or rules when using CRISPR in order to behave ethically, especially because this relatively new piece of technology still has unknown outcomes and tampers with the controversial topic of genetic engineering.

CRISPR technology offers a cheap, precise, and efficient method for genetically modifying organisms. Cas9, the CRISPR-associated enzyme, slices DNA wherever CRISPR directs it to, and scientists have found a way to harness this power. By feeding CRISPR a unique RNA guide, scientists can easily cut DNA to their liking, leading to huge possibilities; malaria-free mosquitoes, greater crop growth, and even “designer babies” are all plausible. Because the protein Cas9 can recognize a large sequence of DNA bases, it slices with extreme precision, making CRISPR technology the most sought-out and reliable method of genetic modification. CRISPR is also inexpensive, the process costing as little as $30. With easy and rapid procedures, CRISPR advances biology research to endless possibilities, from curing diseases to developing biofuel.

However, CRISPR is deemed highly unethical by many. With the ongoing controversy about genetically modified foods and stem cell experiments, critics were already uneasy about the idea of genetic engineering. There was an even bigger outcry when Chinese scientists, led by Junjiu Huang, genetically operated on non-viable human embryos using CRISPR. While the Chinese announced the possibility of curing diseases and eradicating gene defects, CRISPR is relatively new, and the effects of genetically modified organisms are still unknown; thus, it is still too early to perform experiments with human embryos. Even though the enzyme Cas9 is precise, it sometimes slices the wrong sequences, despite being able to recognize a string of around 20 bases. One accidental snip of the DNA could lead to defects or cause the offspring to become infertile. Tampering with genes must be done carefully, if at all. While this could lead to huge possibilities, modifying human embryos is too large of a step. There has not been enough research to see all the effects and unknown consequences of CRISPR, and for the moment, is too risky with human lives on the line.

The risk of irreversibility is also a large factor. Scientists have found a way to breed mosquitoes whose genes won’t allow them to carry malaria. Most of the offspring of a non-carrier with a carrier will turn out to be non-carriers, shifting the populations to non-carriers. Although this sounds effective in ridding the world of malaria, we don’t know if the disease will find its way into the new mosquitoes’ genes and create “super pests” with stronger strains of the parasite. So instead of the current mosquitoes, we would risk an irreversible situation: stronger and more harmful mosquitoes. Genetically modified foods, for example, were engineered to keep insects from eating crops, but the pests evolved, thus rendering that gene of a given GMO plant ineffective. According to research professor Charles Benbrook at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at WSU, genetically engineered crops have led to an increase in total pesticide use, by 404 million pounds in the last 14 years. A similar situation could happen with CRISPR, harming the ecosystem more than helping it. With more research into long-term effects, CRISPR could become a technological panacea. However, with so many unknowns at the moment, CRISPR should not be used for risky research, like genetically engineering a new species or modifying the human genome. Years of careful studies need to be done before moving on to large experiments.

Debate will always surround genetic engineering. There are always moral issues, especially when regarding human embryos. However, CRISPR is a huge leap in biology research. The possibilities are endless with CRISPR, but scientists need to set rules and boundaries. Without enough knowledge about the possible effects, CRISPR should not be taken to the next level yet. It is important to evaluate the possible outcomes and find the balance between advancing research and maintaining ethics.


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