It is like a scene out of a science fiction movie: Scientists are chopping DNA sequences. The sequence is replaced with a more desirable one. Swapping out green eyes for blues one… red hair to brown… light for dark…having a bespoke child. The fiction aspect of this seemingly science fiction movie is closer than we think. Recent developments in genome editing technology have made the seemingly impossible, possible.
DNA Sequences & CRISPR
The CRISPR/CAS9 mechanism is the immune system of bacteria and some microorganisms. It is responsible for removing foreign DNA from viruses, which can attack the organisms. Spacer DNA is inserted into the DNA of the organism by the virus. The spacer DNA acts as an identifier. In case the organism is under attack by the same virus, the immunity is already there.
Scientists have been able to identify these sequences and isolate them. This was the birth of the CRISPR application. CRISPR works by identifying DNA sequences and clipping it from the genome of the organism. Scientists can manufacture the products to replicate this mechanism fairly inexpensively, thus making it easily accessible.
CRISPR can have vast applications, especially since it available to all sorts of educational communities. In farming genetically modified crops already exist. The application of this technology may mean maximized yields. They can be resistant to environmental factors such as weather or pests. Also, it can be used to decrease or eliminate the infectability of of certain diseases. For instance, if the correct sequences were removed out of mosquito DNA, it could mean that mosquitoes carrying malaria will not be able to pass it along with human hosts. CRISPR can be used for genetic diseases as well. The mutated gene can be corrected and all resulting cells produced by cell division will have the corrected DNA. The same can be applied to germline cells.
The scientific community got hit with some intense questions about the implications of CRISPR. With most scientific advancements comes an array of ethical questions. For instance, if there is germline applications of CRISPR, at what limit does the scientific community stop? Introduction of changes in the human genome could have long-term effects which may not be foreseen.
It might also be pertinent to examine why parents would even want to design their children. Aside from vanity, one major issue can be extrapolated; disease. In this circumstance, genetic testing is already an option that is offered to high risk couples. Although it is not same as being able to prevent the disease, many of the existing techniques can screen for genetic diseases.
As a result of these implications, the scientific community has decided the technology will not be applied germline cells. This means that although, science may be capable of engineering babies, it is not likely that it will be anytime soon.