My first direct experience with genetic engineering came with my Honours project; the goal was to create mutants using a PCR based mutagenesis method. PCR stands for Polymerase Chain Reaction and involves using short stretches of DNA called primers to bind to your target DNA, which then gets replicated by the DNA polymerase enzyme. To create the mutants, I used primers which contained a mutation instead of the normal sequence in a specific region. Now, the reason I am explaining this is that making mutants in vitro, in a tube, is not new technology and most labs do it on a routine basis. What makes the technology of CRISPR-Cas9 so interesting is that one can make genetic changes in vivo, or in a cell itself which is much harder to do.
There are many ways to genetically engineer; one can fiddle with the sequence of a gene like I did for my Honours project, one can take genes out, or one can add genes in. Taking genes out is called a “knockout” and is used to see what role genes may play by studying the effects of its removal on the physiology or biochemistry of an organism. Adding genes in is called a “knockin” and is used for a similar purpose to a knockout. Adding genes in has been used to great effect in the agricultural industry, where one can create all sorts of crops with different benefits such as herbicide resistance or drought tolerance.
What makes CRISPR-Cas9 so radical compared to these existent technologies? WIRED ran an interesting piece on it. An overrunning theme has been one of alarmism, especially since scientists in China used it to correct a genetic defect in a non-viable human embryo. The usual line is that we are now “playing God” as it were; with the dreaded implication that next we will be designing babies for the perfect genetic make-up. First off, we as a species have always sought to do more than what nature has provided us, which is why we employ doctors to treat us when we are sick and fund research to aid those doctors in providing better treatments. The slippery slope argument is not so much an argument as a logical fallacy. It is much easier to treat simple genetic diseases since we understand the molecular changes which went wrong in the diseased state. We have very little idea about how genes contribute to intelligence, athleticism, or complex diseases such as schizophrenia.
That is not to say that it is unimportant to consider the ethical implications of a new technology. For the moment, CRISPR-Cas9 is used mostly to create gene knockouts rather than a sleuth of large scale genetic engineering projects. I think an important issue is to understand the incentives which would lead people to do things such as improve their unborn child’s intelligence, rather than impose a moratorium on the technology itself.
In the current economic climate, competition is seen as the ultimate creative force, driving new industries into birth and forcing others to go extinct. Although healthy competition is important, the reverence we see today borders on almost mystical worship. Parents would wish to genetically engineer their child in order to give them a leg-up in this hyper-competitive world. We see this already with the popularity of early-educational paraphernalia, such as the baby Einstein videos. We cannot treat the symptoms of this craving to get just a little bit ahead of everyone else by taming the technology. After all, there will always be a black market.
CRISPR-Cas9 is a technology which has a wide-range of socially beneficial applications. We have to make sure that we can create the climate which would see the best applications of the technology, rather than the dystopian future many envision.