The world of biology is fulfilling a long-time fantasy of splicing and dicing DNA sequences at will. After the moderately recent discovery of the CRIPSR/Cas system, a combination of a DNA-cleaving protein (Cas proteins) and RNA, geneticists are just scratching the surface of what this amazing system can do. By customizing the RNA sequences used by the proteins, geneticists can choose exactly where to cut and remove the defective gene, then allow the body to repair the DNA on its own.
Imagine a world where we can edit out deleterious genes: no cystic fibrosis, no haemophilia, no phenylketonuria, no Tay-Sachs disease. Or, if parents are more into Gattaca-style customization, children may be predisposed to be incredibly intelligent, sexy, and healthy.
Attention to editing the human genome has come to the forefront of many circles in academia. Huang et al published a paper in late April that revealed their attempts to edit the human genome in non-viable human embryos. Dissention and caution erupted in response to the results, cautioning potential damage to genomes we’re sticking our fingers into, especially because the embryo being tampered with would theoretically become a human being who could also reproduce. What are the effects of altered genomes on the next generation? There is no precedence for such editing.
The technology we have now is too primitive to work successfully in human trials (only 4 out of the original 86 embryos had the target gene successfully manipulated in the Huang paper), but the conversation needs to remain open. The options need to be weighed before placing a permanent moratorium on genetic customization. The benefits of potentially eradicating genetic diseases outweigh the potential research outcomes of select trials.
—Alyssa Brandt, Lead Designer
Alyssa Brandt is a senior and lead designer who loves all things brain-related. She likes illustrating and sugary cereals, and will eventually go to graduate school to pursue a PhD in neuroscience.