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Genetic Editing Technology CRISPR

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CRISPR is a breakthrough in genetic editing technology, introduced in 2012. It cut the costs and time of genetic experiments by 99%. CRISPR is an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and is a genetic tool used to modify a living thing’s DNA. It could spell the end of many human genetic diseases, slow the aging process, and help create “designer babies.” To achieve this, man needs to enhance and invest in genetic technology like CRISPR, convince the majority to support it, and break some moral/ethical barriers.

History of Genetic Engineering

Humans have been genetically experimenting with living things for around ten thousand years. They started by breeding wild animals together to derive specific traits that provided the most use. Through selective breeding, man created all the breeds of dogs and cats that are seen around the world today. In the 1970s, genetic engineering on a molecular scale dramatically grew in popularity among the science community. In 1973, the first successful DNA transfer experiment was conducted by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen. About 20 years later, in 1994, the first genetically modified food was put out on the market, the Flavr Savr Tomato. The rotting enzyme in these tomatoes’ DNA was suppressed, giving them a longer shelf life. Crops came next, leading to modern day corn, potatoes, soybeans, cotton, squash, and much more. These were mainly modified for protection against disease and resistance to herbicides. Since the early 2000s, humans have made a variety of genetically modified animals including hypoallergenic pets, “super pigs”, glow-in-the-dark fish, and see-through frogs.

CRISPR – What Does It Do?

CRISPR has been praised by many scientists as the “key to unlocking the full potential of the human genome.” In a nutshell, CRISPR functions like the copy and paste feature on computers. It employs a protein called Cas9, which copies the DNA of harmful bacteria and stores it in CRISPR. Then, CRISPR is put into a cellular structure, such as a human, plant, or animal. Cas9 uses guiding RNAs to search through the living thing’s DNA, with surgeon-like accuracy, for a match to the bacteria DNA stored in CRISPR. When it finds a match, Cas9 cuts off the anomaly, eliminating the disease . Genetic scientists claimed that CRISPR was revolutionary when they discovered it could be programmed. To prove that CRISPR worked and that programming it could be done, a test was done on rats that had 99% of their blood cells infected with HIV. With treatments of CRISPR injected through their tails, 52% of the HIV infected cells were eliminated.

In another CRISPR experiment, a team from Imperial College London successfully modified the mosquito breed responsible for the spread of malaria to go extinct in the lab. In the near future, scientists are expecting to be able to create a modified version of Cas9 that is meant to change a single letter (ATCG) in a living thing’s DNA. If CRISPR gains the ability to do this, it could eliminate a large number of genetic diseases such as cancer, sickle cell, color blindness, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and many more. If CRISPR is used to its maximum potential, it could eventually remove most genetic diseases from the human gene pool.

Potential Futures Through CRISPR

The definition of “science-fiction” would have to “go back to the drawing board” because of CRISPR. It could enhance humans to withstand prolonged space travel, or adapt to different environmental conditions than Earth’s. It could also modify humans to have a better metabolism, ending obesity, slow down the aging process, or enhance the immune system greatly, potentially eradicating cancer; humans could basically breed themselves. This may seem impossible, but scientists recently proved it is possible to correct DNA before birth. They performed a CRISPR experiment with mice embryos that corrected a liver failure mutation planted in their parents. CRISPR also has a higher birth rate of mutated rodent embryos than other gene editing methods, see Figure 1. This makes “designer babies” a real possibility. Furthermore, there is always a slight chance that genetic modification could bring about a disastrous divide among populations or destroy the society mankind has created. It could separate those who are genetically modified and those who aren’t. Nothing could stop a power-hungry country from creating an army of super soldiers to take over other countries that banned genetic engineering.

Moral/Ethical Barriers

There are many speculations on the effects of genetic modifications, especially when it comes to humans. Genetically modified animals and plants already exist, and not many people have a problem with them. The real controversy emerges around man “playing God” by tinkering with their own DNA, which conflicts with many religions. Should a person ever successfully modify their DNA before or after birth, a door will be opened for humanity that cannot be closed. Humans are already pre-selecting other humans based on their health in the womb.

For instance, in 1990s Europe, 92% of pregnancies diagnosed with down syndrome were terminated pre-birth. What if genetic engineering could prevent down-syndrome? What if it could prevent generation based illnesses? It is likely that the parent would do anything to spare their child of suffering. What if it could end cancer by making the human immune system better cancer-cell hunters? Even if CRISPR could do all this in the future, genetic modification would be difficult to make laws on. If governments ban genetic engineering research, then it would probably be used with evil intentions. Support from the public for genetic modification of humans would probably be weak at first, but it would most likely skyrocket once the technology is perfected. One day, it might even become law to not have a baby genetically modified because it would be condemning them to a lifetime of suffering. Genetic engineering needs to be transparent so it can be safely researched, regulated, and rapidly developed. The world’s governments should actively communicate discoveries in this field and keep up with one another, so its power does not go unchecked.

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