THE ETHICS OF CRISPR
Targeted gene editing can be beneficial—or catastrophic, if used irresponsibly. Here are a few of the dilemmas that scientists are facing.
“The worst thing that could happen would be for [CRISPR] technology to be speeding ahead in laboratories,” Doudna tells Fast Company. “Meanwhile, people are unaware of the impact that’s coming down the road.” That’s why Doudna and her colleagues have been raising awareness of the following issues.
Editing sperm cells or eggs— known as germline manipulation— would introduce inheritable genetic changes at inception.
This could be used to eliminate genetic diseases, but it could also be a way to ensure that your offspring have blue eyes, say, and a high IQ. As a result, several scientific organizations and the National Institutes of Health have called for a moratorium on such experimentation. But, writes Doudna, “it’s almost certain that germline editing will eventually be safe enough to use in the clinic.”
Using a Crispr-related technique known as gene drive, bioengineers can encode DNA with a selected for trait, which propagates to future generations—and across entire populations—with unnatural speed. This could give mosquitoes resistance to a parasite responsible for malaria or encode them with a gene for female sterility— thus breeding the pests themselves out of existence. But there’s also the risk of spreading unwanted mutations and crossbreeding the change into another species. “There could be real dangers to releasing organisms into the environment that are out of control at some level genetically,” Doudna writes, “where there’s some trait that’s being driven through a population before we understand what the implications of that really are.”
Woolly mammoths roaming the earth once again? It’s far from easy to do, but scientists are working on just such a Jurassic Park scenario. “Ever since I first heard about experiments like these, I’ve struggled to decide whether they’re admirable, deplorable, or something in between,” writes Doudna. They could enhance our planet’s biodiversity, but bringing back certain species could also open the door to dangerous pathogens or upset ecosystems. —NR