The Future of Genome Editing: Utopia or Dystopia?

Marina Sanz Orell

It seems that, once again, we find ourselves at a point in history where reality begins to imitate fiction. We’ve seen countless examples of this during recent years, from gadgets that seem taken out of Doctor Who to space travelling projects that bring us closer to Star Trek.

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Image Credit: Pixabay

In this case, the movie that comes to mind is Gattaca, a 1997 science fiction classic that depicts a dystopian world where some people are genetically modified in the womb and ‘optimised’ – given superior abilities and all-round health.

The film shows how the use of this practice changes society, because humans who have been optimised are treated as superior while the unmodified humans are underprivileged. While the plot of the movie is a bit more complicated than that, it’s interesting how it portrays the potential consequences of genome editing becoming legal and common practice.

Genome editing is a complex technique that uses a system called CRISPR in combination with a protein called Cas9 to alter a specific (defective) gene from a section of DNA by cutting it out or replacing it with a ‘healthy’ gene. It’s a precise process that allows scientists to target a specific allele and by modifying it, change the function it corresponds to.

The possibilities are endless: it could cure genetic disorders from albinism to the deadly Tay-Sachs disease. It could mean the end of cancer or the beginning of an eternally young-looking society. However, although its potential could be boundless so could its capacity for harm. 

In principle, it sounds like an ideal solution. Imagine you’re about to have a child, and that besides all the stresses and doubts that come with becoming a parent you have the added worry that in your DNA, there’s a gene that could threaten your offspring with blindness.

There’s a chance that your child could inherit that gene and be born blind but you have no way to know or to stop it. But what if you did? What if you could edit their genes and make this risk disappear, not only for your child but for any of their future descendants as well?

While you’re at it, why not make sure that their heart is strong and their respiratory system faultless? And if you’re doing all that, you might as well add a sprinkle of intelligence and a promising athletic disposition, and make their eyes blue and their hair blonde. Suddenly this is no longer about fixing a disability, but about designing tailor-made babies.

The concern is, essentially, that once we’ve crossed the line of making it possible to modify an embryo’s DNA, even with the best intentions and a clear health-focused purpose, it then becomes hard to draw a new line to define when gene editing should or shouldn’t be allowed.

Besides the possibility of this technique being exploited for frivolous cosmetic reasons (reasons that arguably don’t justify the permanent and far-reaching alteration of the entire gene pool), there are so many social repercussions of legalizing gene editing and opening that door.

Considering the possibility of a Government – one that has probably watched too many Marvel movies – abusing this science to create an army of ‘superhumans’ with extraordinary abilities to try to take over the world, sounds ridiculous. That is until you remember North Korea and their general political climate, for example.

Perhaps the consequences will be a world dominated by eugenics where the difference between classes and economic freedom becomes impossible to bridge. Where the privileged are literally ‘genetically superior’ and the underprivileged are locked in a vicious circle of not being able to access gene editing and so remain permanently at the bottom of the food chain.

This would result in a world similar to that which Gattaca suggested, plagued by inequality and discrimination, and also a worrying loss of values. The film portrays how the characters that have a genetic advantage lack perseverance, modesty, the will to improve and the will to fight that comes from struggling in life; something they’ve never experienced.

Behind the endless ethical, social, and even philosophical ramifications of gene editing lay the undeniable scientific and medical advantages of this fast-growing field. However, even from a scientific, optimistic perspective, it is still unknown what the long-term consequences of permanently editing a human DNA can be, or how it could affect the gene pool and our future as a species.

Currently, research is still ongoing and we can sleep easy knowing that we probably won’t wake up to designer babies, superhuman Korean armies, or 70 years old that look 25. However, we have to be aware that it is happening – almost it’s been almost a year since the first genetic modification of an embryo in Britain was approved.

The future, fictional as it may seem, is going to require critical and firm answers to all these ethical questions so we’re going to have to start drawing lines, putting the risks and the benefits on the scale and having conversations about the possibilities of gene editing

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