CRISPR technology is a simple yet incredibly powerful tool for editing genomes, the fundamental building blocks of any organism. It allows researchers to easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene function potentially with no limits or boundaries to what can be done to alter the physical attributes of animals and human beings. The process uses enzymes to cut through sections of DNA allowing new sequences to be added or parts removed. The result is that we can now completely alter genes, therefore the actual structure of an organism itself. Perfected over a five year period on animal subjects CRISPR researchers are now beginning the first human trials. There are multiple applications for this process but the potential is extraordinary including things such as correcting genetic defects, eradicating hereditary disease, improving crop design, changing livestock, designing children and fashioning our own bodies as we see fit to make us stronger, taller, smarter and live longer. There are of course many difficult moral and scientific questions yet to be answered with this technology and it could be argued that altering ourselves in such a dramatic fashion, particularly in the realms of choosing our own attributes, could have many negative effects on our species in the long run and be unethical.
Whilst various types of gene editing techniques have existed for the last couple of decades, CRISPR represents a major revolution in our ability to manipulate DNA. Over four times more efficient than techniques used in the past and with extensive lab animal testing to back it up, researchers are now pushing ahead with human tests. In late 2016 the process began and now in 2017 there are over twenty different projects in a wide variety of countries that are performing the process on humans.
Its many potential applications include correcting genetic defects and deactivating dangerous illnesses. The ideal situation would be for CRISPR to provide a standard solution for any given detected illness and a simple injection of the appropriate CRISPR response to shut down the illness in a single step. That would be the dream outcome for the technology.
A second use for the abilities of the CRISPR technology is to use it to alter DNA in human embryos, eggs and sperm and this is where the technology becomes much more controversial. The difference between using the technology on an adult and on developing cells is extensive and the implications for the later are concerning. Intervening in developing cells will lock in those changes, making them permanent in such a way as the changes will be passed on in a hereditary fashion to children born down the line.
With CRISPR, there is no doubt that there are multiple very concerning implications to the technology. Should humans actually alter their genetic code to introduce preferential attributes? Should parents be allowed to dictate what their children look like? And, perhaps most pressing of all, should we be altering our own evolutionary path in this extreme way? All of those ethical questions will have to be decided upon much further down the line and a large amount of regulation will have to make sure, if we do allow any of these things, that they can be safely controlled.
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