CRISPR Technology: Benefits and Ramifications
By: Thanusree Mallela
Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats or CRISPR is a relatively recent technology that utilizes enzymes to “cut” pieces of DNA, opening the door to many gene treatments and therapies. CRISPR was adapted from the natural defense mechanisms of bacteria and archaea, which are single-celled microorganisms. These organisms used various enzymes and proteins to destroy the DNA of foreign invaders, a technique, upon further research, that was effective with human DNA. By using enzymes to separate strands of human DNA, other genes can be “edited” into the sequence, thus providing the foundation of CRISPR technology.
This technology is revolutionary and opens many doors for scientists and patients alike. CRISPR can be used to fix genetic defects in fetuses and may help find the cure for other genetic diseases, such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. CRISPR is not only highly effective, but it is also extremely cost-effective. This technology hit the market as a panacea, seeming to hold the answers to all of humanity’s problems. Due to the availability and versatility of this technology, numerous research papers have been written utilizing this technology. This shows that the technology is tried and tested, despite being quite young in the science society.
While this technology is both effective and cheap, it does have its disadvantages. The code and algorithms that must be written for the technology to work are time-consuming and can be frustrating as well as challenging. Also, while this technology is highly effective, it isn’t highly efficient. This means there is a margin for error and the results must be interpreted carefully. And while the CRISPR technology is effective in editing specific areas of DNA, oftentimes there can be “off-target effects” in which the technology edits unwanted areas of DNA.
Undoubtedly CRISPR has its benefits, however, the real disadvantages come in the form of ethical and moral questions. This technology has the potential to create “tailor-made babies” or children whose genes have been edited for a specific purpose. Already, a blanket of immorality covers this issue. The idea of engineering babies makes them a commodity and also attaches a price tag to life. The question remains whether having “perfect” babies is worth monetizing a child and whether humans should have the right to mess with nature to that extent. The questions raised can be separated into two main categories: ethical and legal ramifications.
While there is no doubt regarding the potential benefits of CRISPR, the technology raises many ethical dilemmas. CRISPR is most effective in infantile cells, sperm, eggs, and embryos since these are more receptive to this technology. The dilemma is whether it is ethical to edit the genes of babies or gametes. While it may be beneficial in regards to genetic diseases, where do you draw the line? Ethicists argue that editing the genes of humans is crossing the line and one more way that humans are upsetting the balance of nature. The problem is that editing the genes of children is akin to “playing god.” Another aspect of this dilemma lies within the idea of natural evolution. By allowing scientists to edit the genes of humans, a crucial step of nature has become obsolete. And as humans have learned over and over again in the form of global warming and extinctions, upsetting the balance of nature is catastrophic for everyone.
The other side of the debate is regarding the legal ramifications that arise due to the use of this technology. If gene editing is allowed, then there must be laws regulating the use and extent of editing. Also considering that this technology will most likely be used in babies, guardianship must be regulated as well. Finally, the question of custody and the question of pay must be controlled. All of these aspects and many more must be controlled in some manner, as any company that uses this technology and method will be tampering with nature and thus must be carefully controlled so that human life does not become a commodity.
CRISPR technology is beneficial to the future of humanity as well as a key player in the development of medicine. However, the ramifications of this method must not be overlooked in the tsunami of positive attention that this technology is receiving. There can be too much of a good thing and if humanity isn’t careful, this technology could open the doors to an Orwellian future.
1. Jennifer Doudna. Genome-Editing Revolution: My Whirlwind Year with CRISPR. Nature News. 2015.
2. NIH. What Are Genome Editing and CRISPR-Cas9? U.S. National Library of Medicine. 2017.Regalado Antonio. EXCLUSIVE: Chinese Scientists Are Creating CRISPR Babies. MIT Technology Review. 2020.
3. Regalado Antonio. EXCLUSIVE: Chinese Scientists Are Creating CRISPR Babies. MIT Technology Review. 2020.
4. Shafaat Fabeha. Does CRISPR Cas9 Have the Potential to Solve All of Society's Problems? Young Scientists Journal. 2020.
5. Shepherd Colin. CRISPR-Cas9 Genome Editing: Weighing the Pros and Cons. Bitesize Bio. 2020.