Sounds like Gattaca all over again, doesn’t it? It’s actually real life, though. Scientists in China have opened the flood gates and edited the human genome in embryos. But their intentions were good! (we think) The work was done with hopes of eliminating a gene that is responsible for a potentially fatal blood disorder.
The group used embryos acquired from a local fertility clinic and specially used embryos that were incapable of developing into a live birth. Naturally, this caused quite a stir among other scientists because of the ethical implications it poses. The technique used is called CRISPR and could, potentially, be used for making humans more intelligent and better looking, in addition to removing diseases.
In a shock turn of events, scientists called for a temporary worldwide ban on CRISPR after word got out that Junjiu Huang and his team from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou were tinkering with the technique. Their concerns are legitimate, though. Changes to the egg/sperm could possibly be passed down to future generations and can pose “unknown risks to human health and well-being.”
It raises the most fundamental of issues about how we are going to view our humanity in the future and whether we are going to take the dramatic step of modifying our own germline and in a sense take control of our genetic destiny, which raises enormous peril for humanity,
Said stem cell expert George Q. Daley. He and his colleagues noted that mad scientists in the US and Europe might obey prohibition of the work, but those in “lax jurisdictions” won’t give a toss about the ethical and clinical problems. So how exactly does this CRISPR method work you ask? Well here’s the scoop. Until 2012 scientists lacked a cutting tool sharp and precise enough to cut out the marked genes without missing the target.
The CRISPR ” co-opts molecules used by bacteria to fight viruses, directing them to make precise cuts in genomes instead.” It’s been used on genetic materials in mice and monkeys before, but these trials conducted in China are the first to have been conducted on human genomes. This is all well and good, but Carl Zimmer of National Geographic notes that there were several MAJOR problems with CRISPR. According to Zimmer, the technique isn’t nearly as accurate as advertised and often inserted DNA into the wrong place in the genome due to the CRISPR missing its target.
Such a misfire wouldn’t just fail to fix a disease, it could create a disease of its own.
Future work on the technique would surely improve its deficiencies, but there’s no doubt that a multitude of problems will arise even when it is further developed. So until anything like that happens it looks like we’ll just have to watch Gattaca over and over and over with the hopes of being a race of super smart and sexy people.