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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.

De­signer Hu­mans

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.”

Gene Bombs

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

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