Ethical Issues in Genome Editing

        Genetics and biotechnology have had and continue to impact our lives in a lot of ways. But just like any other technology, biotechnology raises also raises issues of ethics. Ethical issues that often impact social policy, environment and the law. In this essay, we will consider some ethical issues of biotechnology, from a historical perspective, we will also look at some of the issues surrounding reproductive and CRISPR technology. Controversies regarding biotechnology are not new, for example, genetics had a huge impact on the law and social policy for the past century. Understanding the history and contrivances surrounding ideas in science and biotechnology is important so that we can avoid repeating the same mistakes. 

Genetics and biotechnology impact our lives in many ways, but they also raise larger issues about ethics, social policy and law. In this essay, we will consider some ethical issues of biotechnology, both from a historical view and the issues surrounding reproductive and CRISPR technology. Contrivances with regards to biotechnology are not new, for example, genetics had a huge impact on the law and social policy for the past century. Understanding the history and contrivances surrounding ideas in science and biotechnology is important so that we can avoid repeating the same mistakes.  

       After the publication of the origins of species, Darwin’s cousins proposed that selection should be used to improve the human race. He started a new field called eugenics, Darwin’s cousin proposed that if we applied the principle of natural selection we could improve the intellectual, economic and social levels of humans through selective breeding. His central premise was this, people with desirable attributes like leadership, musical and physical ability should be encouraged to have large families. Whereas those with undesirable attributes such as mental retardation and physical deformities should be discouraged from reproducing (Kevles, 1995).

          Eugenics suffers from many shortcomings, firstly it assumes that traits are passed on from parents to the child without any environmental input. The idea that all humanity is determined sorely genes, is called hereditarianism. Through advances in genetics, we now know that genes are activated partly by switches within the DNA and the environment. What research has found is that while the sequence of DNA may not be affected by the environment, gene expression can be affected by many social and environmental factors. Individuals may have the genetic trait but way it is expressed is to a large extent affected by the environment (Black, 2003).

        Secondly, his proposal failed to address one very important aspect, who defines what are desirable and undesirable traits. His proposal only works if there are objective standards on which we can judge what constitute undesirable and desirable traits. Even that raises two other important questions, first, who determines those objective standards that everyone should follow.  One may suggest the community or Government, but governments have been known to go tyrannical, Germany under Hitler wanted to create a super race. In his vision of the super race, everyone with undesirable traits would be exterminated. Under Nazi, Hitler had a euthanasia program where everyone with a genetic abnormality, disablement was euthanised under the guise of compassion.  

      Thirdly, what happens to individuals who fall short of the ideal standard? Despite the worldview implications of eugenics, eugenics took hold in the majority of Western countries. Proponents of eugenics worked really hard to promote selective breeding in the human population. And to prevent reproduction by those they deem defective. In Australia and America, Eugenics was also used to pass restrictive immigration bills. In the aftermath of world war 1 and faced with a wave of immigration from the south and Eastern Europe. Proponents of eugenics argued that the high levels of unemployment, poverty and crime among immigrants proved that people from these parts of the world where genetically inferior.

Gene editing

 Main points

•    Gene editing is a group of technologies that give scientist the ability to change an organism’s DNA. These technologies allow genetic materials to be added, removed or altered at a particular location of the gene.

•    Over the years there have been several technologies that have been developed. A more recent one is the CRISPR-case9, which stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindrome repeats and CRISPR associated protein 9.

•    CRISPR – case9 was adapted from a naturally occurring genome editing system that is found in bacteria. The bacteria capture snippets of the DNA from invading viruses and uses them to form DNA segments known as CRISPR arrays. This allows the bacteria to remember the virus.

•    In CRISPR CASE 9, researchers found a way to create a small piece of RNA with a short guide sequence that attaches its self to a specific target sequence of DNA in the gene.

•    The modified RNA is used to recognise the DNA sequence and the case9 enzyme cuts the DNA at the target site (Cong et al., 2013).

Ethical issues

As it stands the cells that CRISPR case9 can only be used on somatic cells, somatic cells are cells that if altered the effects cannot be passed to the next generation. Somatic cell changes only affect the behaviour of organs and tissues. Changes to the germline cells such as sperm or egg bring to question whether the technology will be used to improve human traits such as intelligence or height.  The problems with attempting to alter the genetic makeup of germ line cells are that unlike small organism, characteristics like height are determined by several gene pairs and the environment (Bosley et al., 2015). 

Individual genes do not code for just one trait. For example, the sonic hedgehog gene located on chromosome 7 is responsible for a number of processes during the development of the embryo. SHH is a transcription factor that is responsible for the patterning of the fingers, it controls cell division of adult stem cells and patterning of the central nervous system to name a few.  Another example is the gene that codes of dystrophin, on top of the role it plays in the strengthening of muscles it may also play a role in the signalling of cells by interacting with proteins that and receive chemical signals. All this to say, we do not enough about the DNA, hence there is no way of knowing the effect it will have on the next generation.

The use of CRISPR may produce off-target mutation which can be fatal, research has found a high reference of off-target mutation in human cells but lower in another small organism like mice and zebrafish.  In humans’ large genomes may contain multiple DNA sequences similar or highly homologous to the unintended target DNA sequence. CRISPR may cleave these unintended sequences causing mutation which may cause cell death and transformation. This use of CRISPR to remove disease or improve the human genome, leads us to ask a number of questions, what makes a person a person? Is personhood just a sum of genetic material? And to what extent do genes affect our personality, and will gene editing produce ethical humans?

Finally, if we could somehow manage to perfect CRISPR, and create humans with superior intellect and physical ability. It uses would only be open to a select few wealthy people that can afford the technology. What happens then to the rest of us with undesirable traits and average intellectual and physical capabilities.

Black, E. (2003). War against the weak: Eugenics and America’s campaign to create a master race. New York.

Bosley, K. S., Botchan, M., Bredenoord, A. L., Carroll, D., Charo, R. A., Charpentier, E., . . . Feng, G. (2015). CRISPR germline engineering—the community speaks. Nature biotechnology, 33(5), 478.

Cong, L., Ran, F. A., Cox, D., Lin, S., Barretto, R., Habib, N., . . . Marraffini, L. A. (2013). Multiplex genome engineering using CRISPR/Cas systems. Science, 339(6121), 819-823.

Kevles, D. J. (1995). In the name of eugenics: Genetics and the uses of human heredity: Harvard University Press.


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