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The bright future of genetic engineering essay

Foht The fears and the hopes of genetically engineering the human race have been haunting the modern mind for the better part of a century, although only in the last decade have techniques been developed that might give us the power to modify the genomes of human beings at the embryonic stage. Foremost among these has been the CRISPR-Cas9 system — a set of bacterial enzymes first identified in the late 1980s, and during just the last few years harnessed as a gene-editing tool.

Earlier genetic engineering methods required different enzymes to target different locations in the genome, but by using RNA instead, CRISPR makes that targeting process much easier. This new gene-editing tool has rapidly become ubiquitous in molecular biology, with many applications beyond gene therapy. For instance, scientists have used CRISPR to remove retroviral sequences from the genomes of pig embryos in the hope of producing pigs with organs that can be transplanted more safely into humans.

This claim seems overblown. While it is true that CRISPR makes the specific task of editing DNA much easier, there are other technically complicated steps and procedures involved in most forms of genetic engineering.

Pros and Cons of Genetic Engineering

And modifying the genes of human embryos would mean first conducting in vitro fertilization — a procedure that would be very difficult for an amateur hobbyist and is made no simpler by CRISPR. Still, it seems as though CRISPR may be poised to overcome the major technical hurdles to genetically engineering human beings — namely, being able reliably and precisely to modify the DNA sequences of human cells, including embryos.

Scientists have already used it to create genetically modified mice, pigs, and non-human primates. There have even been two published studies describing the use of CRISPR by Chinese scientists to modify human embryos which they subsequently destroyed ; it is generally believed that scientists in China have conducted numerous similar experiments without publishing their results.

How Should Genetic Engineering Shape Our Future?

In the published studies, the error rates in the genetic modifications were very high, but other researchers have discovered ways to improve the accuracy of the technique significantly, and so it may soon be precise enough for clinical use.

The scientific and media interest in CRISPR has renewed longstanding debates about the ethics of genetically engineering human beings. The questions we face: Should we design our descendants?

And if so, how? What are the proper ethical boundaries around this new power, and what are the proper ends to which we should direct it? What are our obligations to future generations — should we take control over our evolution so that our descendants may transcend human nature, or ought we to consider human nature to be a gift from our ancestors for the present generation to steward faithfully for the good of generations to come? Foreseeable Limits Before assuming that CRISPR will transform genetic therapy and make possible designer babies and other forms of genetic enhancement, it is worth reviewing some of the remaining practical and technical obstacles.

Regarding therapy, we should remember that clinical genetics has so far had limited success even in the the bright future of genetic engineering essay of diagnosis and prediction, and it is not at all clear that the addition of this new technique for modifying DNA will be useful in treatments anytime soon.

We are far from having such knowledge today. Biotechnological optimists who expect that CRISPR will quickly advance point with hope to the great progress over the past several decades in the closely related field of gene sequencing. There is more to evaluating these technologies than these raw numbers, of course, but the numbers tell a very important part of the story. However, while the record of progress in gene sequencing is indeed remarkable, measuring progress in the science of genetics or the art of medicine is not as simple.

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If anything, the technological progress has far outpaced medical and scientific progress. The field of clinical genetics, which involves diagnosing and predicting disease on the basis of genetic factors, is still riddled with errors that result in bad medical decisions, including, most troublingly, the abortion of children who are mistakenly diagnosed with genetic diseases.

And so, as we discuss how CRISPR might be used in medicine, we should keep in mind that gene therapy will never be more effective than the level set by clinical genetics. If we do not know enough to predict or diagnose disease on the basis of genetics, we will not be able to cure or prevent disease through gene-editing techniques. Clinical genetics will likely improve in coming years as scientists gather ever more data from ever more patients, and we can expect that therapies for specific genetic disorders — especially those associated with a small number of genetic mutations — may be available in the years ahead.

But even if we had a robust understanding of the mutations that cause disease, we would still be far from understanding the genetic basis of complex traits such as athleticism or intelligence that parents might seek to design in their offspring. The former category involves genetic changes that are not passed on to children, such as the various gene therapies used for the past two decades to treat disorders of the immune system. By contrast, the latter category involves genetic changes that are passed on through the germ cells sperm and egg from parents to children.

This can be done in two ways: Women do not produce new egg cells after birth, so this kind of germline treatment is more likely to be attempted in men; their sperm-producing stem cells could be modified by gene-editing technologies.

Unlike with blurry categories distinguishing between acceptable therapy and unacceptable enhancement — or more generally, the distinctions between prudent and reckless, safe or dangerous, good or bad — it is easy to see the difference between, on the one hand, therapy in children or adult patients, and on the other, intentional modifications to the germline. But modifying the genes of an early embryo would treat, or at least prevent, disease for that individual, the embryo, in addition to preventing the disease in any descendants that embryo may one day have.

The Bright Future Of Genetic Engineering

So ethical analyses that try to distinguish between somatic and germline modifications may not be as clear-cut as they seem, since modifications of the germline may arise as consequences, rather than as intended aspects, of modifications made for the benefit of the embryo.

The complexity of germline ethics is further illustrated by the debates over another reproductive biotechnology: These techniques, intended to prevent the transmission of certain diseases, involve transferring DNA between two egg cells to create an embryo that will have nuclear DNA from one woman and mitochondrial DNA from another.

National Academy of Medicine, in its February 2016 report on the social and ethical implications of mitochondrial replacement techniques, proposed that doctors implant and bring to term only male embryos created through this procedure — meaning that female embryos would all be destroyed — so that the modifications will not be passed on through the generations. The Problem of Consent A concern sometimes raised with germline modification is that of consent. Newborn babies, for example, are not able to consent to the various medical treatments they receive in hospitals — including, sometimes, experimental treatments for rare or difficult-to-treat conditions.

  • It has also helped by introducing genes to crops that make the plants undesirable to various pests;
  • There have even been two published studies describing the use of CRISPR by Chinese scientists to modify human embryos which they subsequently destroyed ; it is generally believed that scientists in China have conducted numerous similar experiments without publishing their results;
  • These tools will allow scientists to practice genetic engineering on a scale that is simultaneously far more precise and far more ambitious than ever before.

Experimental therapies may be justified for children when such therapies are medically necessary for them, even though the children cannot consent to the risks. An embryo, having been brought into existence, is a human organism with medical needs — an embryo can be cared for well or badly, and will live or die, or grow to be healthy or sick, in part on the basis of how it is cared for in its earliest stages.

Editing those mutations is then a form of preventative medicine — not, principally, for future generations, but for the embryo, and for the child and adult that the embryo will grow up to be.

The Germline in Eugenics When new biotechnologies such as cloning or embryonic stem cells emerge, they sometimes pit a pro-research scientific community against members of the broader public who have moral concerns.

Biologists often seem to follow J. Following the discrediting of eugenics, human genetics turned down a more medical path, one aimed at helping actual patients instead of protecting the germ plasm from deterioration.

  1. Editing techniques like CRISPR enable exact genetic repairs through a simple cut and paste of DNA, while synthetic biologists aim to redo entire genomes through the writing and substitution of synthetic genes. Whilst we should be fighting against them, we do need at least a few illnesses, otherwise we would soon become overpopulated.
  2. A boy who is more interested in art than baseball can tell his father that he would rather paint than try out for the team. The technologies are complementary, and they herald an era when the book of life will be not just readable, but rewritable.
  3. In such cases, correcting mutations after a baby is born may not be an effective way to reverse developmental problems caused by the mutations. Imagine a virus that combines the lethality of Ebola with the transmissibility of the common cold—and in the new world of biology, if you can imagine something, you will eventually be able to create it.
  4. Can it Go Too Far? Looking to our past, we should cultivate a sense of gratitude and reverence for what our ancestors have bequeathed to us — our evolved human nature, which brings forth bodies and minds that are awe-inspiring, frail, and beautiful beyond anything in this world.

Today, some critics fear that advocates of human enhancement might use the new gene-editing techniques to manipulate the germline — a kind of backsliding to the use of genetics not for the medical benefit of individual patients, but for the sake of that non-patient, the human race.

However, as we shall see, this justified fear of the eugenic implications of modifying the germline can itself lead to the subordination of the well-being of actual patients who might themselves stand in need of genetic therapies that could affect future generations.

Where Germline Talk Leads Within the scientific community, views about germline modification are mixed. The position that permits genetic modification of embryos only if they will be destroyed should not be seen as a compromise between a total ban on embryo experimentation and complete permission for the modification of the germline — rather, in mandating the destruction of certain types of human beings, it should be seen as one of the worst ethical outcomes.

Imperfection and Gratitude Some biologists are suspicious of genetic engineering out of a deference to the wisdom of the evolutionary process that has generated so many remarkably well-designed organisms. Not everyone shares this view. And if we consider the book Darwin did in fact write, On the Origin the bright future of genetic engineering essay Specieswe find a very different appraisal of the evolutionary process: Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Darwin may have been wrong to think of the production of higher animals as the most exalted the bright future of genetic engineering essay we are capable of conceiving, but the human form, and the forms of the rest of the living kingdom are the most wonderful and beautiful and well-formed objects that anyone will ever behold.

This is not to say that human nature, or the nature of any living creature, is perfect, but to express a sense of gratitude and wonder at what is good about us before expressing dissatisfaction with our faults. We need not quarrel with the assertion that it would be better for us to have the natural ability to synthesize vitamin C, that the evolutionary accident that caused us to lose this ability represents an imperfection in our nature.

  1. Scientists have already used it to create genetically modified mice, pigs, and non-human primates. Biotechnological optimists who expect that CRISPR will quickly advance point with hope to the great progress over the past several decades in the closely related field of gene sequencing.
  2. Picking the genes to modify in an embryo in order to create a child with, say, a high IQ, would require comprehensive knowledge of the actual effects of different genes.
  3. Now, my thrill level of the genetic engineering of crops and plants is not very high, to be completely honest with you. Those incidents ultimately caused little death and damage, in part because medical science is mostly capable of defending us from those pathogens that are most easily weaponized.
  4. Now, my thrill level of the genetic engineering of crops and plants is not very high, to be completely honest with you. However, what is to stop just a handful of people taking the research too far?

Surely it would be more reasonable to leave our evolved nature as it is and to drink some orange juice than to embark on a genetic engineering project to give our descendants freedom from their dependence on citrus.

Just as in politics it is easy to imagine better regimes but very difficult actually to design and build new ones, in biology it is easier to recognize what we might call a deficiency than it is to correct one.

In biology and medicine, as in politics, a sense of gratitude for what works in deeply complex, evolved systems should take precedence over a sense of dissatisfaction with what the bright future of genetic engineering essay not. A Pro-Life Case for Therapeutic Gene Editing The options available to parents who know that their children face a risk of inheriting a genetic disease are to refrain from having children either through abstinence, contraception, or sterilization ; to use IVF and preimplantation genetic diagnosis PGD — a technique that involves extracting cells from early embryos in order to determine whether the embryos carry certain disease-causing genes, and then selectively implanting only the embryos not affected by those genes; to use donated sperm, eggs, or embryos; to adopt; or to have a child naturally and if the child is affected by the disease use whatever postnatal treatments are available.

As gene-editing technology improves, it will not only become easier to edit the genomes of embryos, but it will also become easier to cure or treat diseases in children or adult patients — and in many cases, such somatic gene therapies will be preferable to editing the genes of embryos. However, some genetic diseases manifest in early stages of development; most forms of Tay-Sachs diseasefor instance, begin to manifest early in pregnancy and are generally fatal for the child before it reaches the age of five.

In such cases, correcting mutations after a baby is born may not be an effective way to reverse developmental problems caused by the mutations. In selecting embryos to destroy or fetuses to abortdoctors and parents are making a judgment that the life of someone affected by a disease or disability is not worth living — implying that those individuals affected by the disease would have been better off if they had never been born.

To put it another way, the judgment implicit in using gene editing to modify a disease-causing gene is that it is better to live without that disease than to live with it; the judgment implicit in using prenatal abortion is that it is better to die than to live with the disease. When both are options, preferring selective destruction over gene editing amounts to a preference for killing over curing.

Cons of Genetic Engineering

In debating the future of genetics and medicine, we should remember that the current practice of prenatal screening and abortion is not the beginning of a slippery slope but is rather already the bottom of that slope. It is the medically sanctioned use of killing as a public health measure. Morally speaking, editing the genes of embryos rather than destroying them would be a step in the right direction.

However, the bright future of genetic engineering essay how the assisted reproduction industry operates in the United States, it seems unlikely that gene editing will replace PGD anytime soon as a way to prevent genetic disease.

American IVF clinics regularly produce many more embryos than they will attempt to implant, so as to improve the efficiency of the procedure and to maximize the chances of achieving a pregnancy. This means that, in American IVF clinics, many more embryos are destroyed for the sake of convenience and efficiency than are destroyed for the sake of avoiding genetic disease.

Likewise in the case of abortion, while the majority of babies diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted, the majority of abortions are not done for such eugenic reasons. A culture that so often treats embryonic and fetal life as discardable is the bright future of genetic engineering essay to bother with an inconvenient and difficult therapeutic approach instead.

There are some cases where PGD is not an effective option — for example, where both parents carry two copies of recessive disease-causing genes, or where at least one parent carries two copies of a dominant disease-causing gene.

These will always be very rare cases, however, representing a small minority of the population. Furthermore, these kinds of cases would by definition only involve diseases that are later-onset and less serious than the most lethal genetic diseases, since they would involve prospective parents who are not just carriers but are themselves patients affected by the disease who have nonetheless survived to adulthood.

These kinds of cases might be good candidates for postnatal gene therapy instead of editing the genes of embryos. Other than the obvious example of the sex of the child, very few non-disease traits can be selected using these techniques.

PGD will never be an effective way for parents to design a child who will be genetically disposed to be tall, intelligent, good-looking, or athletic, since these are all traits that involve dozens, or hundreds of genes, to say nothing of environmental factors.

But gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR may offer parents the ability to modify large numbers of genes in their embryos to give their children a better chance of being tall, intelligent, good-looking, or athletic. However, designing these kinds of traits would require not just an effective gene-editing technology but also precise and extensive knowledge of the genetic basis for these traits.

Traits such as intelligence involve very large numbers of genes that each make a very small contribution. Picking the genes to modify in an embryo in order to create a child with, say, a high IQ, would require comprehensive knowledge of the actual effects of different genes.

Having a vague awareness that IQ is heritable might motivate the selection of a high-IQ sperm or egg donor or husband or wife, for that matterbut it is not enough when faced with the decision of which exact nucleotides to change in a given genome. A particular variant may be associated with slightly higher IQ on average in the population, but without understanding how that variant interacts with other genes and environmental factors to influence intelligence, doctors will not know whether introducing it to the genome of a particular embryo will be helpful, harmful, or simply ineffective.

But a good keyboard will not help an editor who does not understand the basic principles of grammar, spelling, syntax, and so forth. Right now, scientists understand some of the basic syntax of the genetic code — although, as in English, there are many exceptions to any of the known rules. This means that scientists can identify some obvious genetic errors or mutations that cause disease. But to go beyond simple copy-editing to improving the clarity or eloquence of a text, an editor needs to know something of how to convey meaning with words, sentences, paragraphs.

Here, scientists are far from having that kind of mastery of the genetic language. Indeed, the metaphor of code and language breaks down quite quickly beyond the rules that govern the translation of a sequence of DNA to a sequence of amino acids. While there are currently strong practical limits on genetic modification of complex traits, it is still worth questioning the aims of one day doing so.

Larry Arnhart has argued in these pages that genetic engineering will always be constrained in the goals to which it will be directed, since parents have a natural desire for what is best for their children, which will guide their decisions about genetically modifying them. Arnhart is right to think that scenarios such as the one depicted in Brave New Worldwhere the state takes over reproduction and designs children to be genetically suited to particular social roles, are highly unlikely, particularly in a liberal democratic society.