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A Dystopian Vision for CRISPR

Last month the news was filled with reports of a genetically-engineered baby being produced in China by the scientist He Jiankui. It motivated a ton of rightfully angry articles, and the work was described by many as ‘human experimentation’, which, to be fair, it was.

The scientist edited a healthy embryo’s genetics with a technology called CRISPR, with the goal of giving the child resistance to HIV. While this sounds very noble, CRISPR is underdeveloped and nowhere near safe enough for implementation in humans. Nobody really knows what effect this kind of manipulation could have on individuals, or on the species as a whole.

When radioactivity was discovered, for example, it was marketed as a health product, and people were sold radioactive toothpaste, water, and encouraged to get as much radiation in them as possible.  The lesson, which seems to have been learnt, is not to rush in to these things. I’m glad about the response the scientific community had, and caution is thoroughly advised when editing something as complex as the genetic code.

Having said that, with a bit more time to develop, CRISPR has the potential to change human life for the better.

CRISPR is analogous to having a pair of genetic scissors: it can remove certain genes and add others. Genes are the instructions that define who we are, how we look and, to a certain extent, how we behave. They can also deal us bad hands; genetic disease is one of the most pressing challenges faced by medicine. Cystic Fibrosis and other genetic disorders could be a thing of the past if this technology matures as we think it will– simply snip out the genes that cause it from a developing embryo. Cancer could also be tackled by inserting genes that boost the immune system, such that cancers become recognisable targets to be eliminated. In theory, the children of the future could be born immune to just about everything that we currently fear developing.

We already screen our embryos for disorders such as Down syndrome, and 92% of suspected Down syndrome pregnancies in Europe are terminated. People may protest the inevitable rise of CRISPR as immoral, but ultimately, we want what’s best for our children. As soon as the first genetically engineered child is born to a safe technology, the floodgates burst open – if the neighbour’s child is immune to HIV, why shouldn’t mine be? I’ll also make sure to add in a couple of intelligence boosting genes, and one that makes my son look that little bit more symmetrical in the face and so on.

Before you know it, there’s an atmosphere of competition. Giving our children the best start to life may soon begin by purchasing as many advantageous genes as possible before they’re even born. Instead of comparing private schools, the middle-class parents of the future could be equipping their offspring with a genetic advantage, which has the potential to spawn a grossly stratified, and somewhat terrifying, society.  

This dystopian vision is a while off, but regardless, the discussion needs to begin before we fill the world with three-metre-tall superhumans.

Robert Brett

Robert Brett is a final year Physics student. He is the chair of the Literature Society for 2018/2019.

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