Gene editing: designer babies or desperately needed tool?

By Josh Joyce

Bioethics is a crucial part of the decision making within biological sciences but the information is often poorly disseminated to the public and politicians. Given that both these groups can influence the direction of the field, ensuring that they are well educated is crucial. The theory behind innovative science is often difficult to grasp and therefore informing the public can be testing. This challenge has rarely been greater than with the recent advances in gene editing.

Gene editing techniques allow targeted mutations to be created in an organism’s genome. The most current and commonly utilised approach is known as CRISPR-Cas9. In a similar way to how bacterial antibiotics are utilised to treat infections; this approach exploits the natural bacterial defences of Streptococcus pyogenes against viruses.

Its Cas9 protein is an enzyme which cleaves DNA at targeted ‘CRISPR’ sites as directed by a guide molecule. By engineering into cells DNA encoding the Cas9 enzyme with an appropriate guide molecule, directed DNA incisions can be made.

Following this, the DNA will attempt to fix the Cas9-induced damage; this often produces a mutation removing the function of that DNA section. However, if a new DNA sequence or gene is provided, the cell can instead insert this adding function to the organism’s genome.

The ability to create targeted genetic changes brings great potential for fundamental biological breakthroughs. CRISPR-Cas9 can form an efficient genetic research tool capable of relatively rapidly revealing the function of genes. This knowledge is critical throughout biology.

Gene editing also has more applied potential. Within livestock or crops it can produce traits such as pest resistance or increased yields. Alternative methods which produce biologically indifferent products are available. However, these are often more challenging or in the case of genetically modified organisms, governed by such strict regulations that their European use is practically eliminated.

Other gene editing applications exist but the most prominent and controversial use is no doubt within human embryos. There are various human genetic diseases which can greatly decrease the quality of an individual’s life or even cause death. CRISPR has shown its ability to modify human embryonic genes with the potential to cure some of these diseases.

The ability to manipulate human genetic material unsurprisingly comes with some very difficult ethical questions. The media-promoted and terrifying concept of ‘designer babies’ springs to most people’s minds. Contrary to popular belief, gene editing and genetic modification techniques often just provide more efficient ways to reach the same end points as more traditional and accepted approaches. CRISPR techniques can actually decrease the amount of research that needs to be done with human embryos.

However, this does not resolve the ‘designer baby’ issue. Thankfully, the complex determination of human traits means that, it is practically impossible to select which characteristics an embryo will develop. Even if it was possible, the current quality of this technique remains far below that required for clinical applications.

Great innovation comes with equally significant bioethical considerations. It is reassuring to see that scientists question the bioethics and encourage discussion whilst discouraging the media-fuelled misinterpretations which often replace such dialogue. The demand for good science is ever expanding with greater global challenges. Thus, the mindset of establishing knowledge before anger and questioning before assuming is now more important than ever.

Image: ashokboghani via Flickr

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