5 Awesome Things Humanity Can Solve with Genetic Modifications
The idea of tinkering around with genetic modifications has long been a source of fascination for humankind. But, although it was something consigned to science fiction books for many decades, scientists are now rapidly solving the challenges around it. Gene editing is now expected to be a feasible option in the near future.
A gene editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9 has led the way in the field. It is quite effective at cutting or adding genes and has been rapidly adopted by researchers across the world. Just half a decade ago, Chinese researchers successfully edited genes into a nonviable human in order to treat an inherited disease – although this caused a lot of unexpected and possibly dangerous changes.
One of the more serious issues about the ethics of editing human genes are the changes that can be done to human eggs, sperm and embryos. These three are collectively referred to as the human germline.
When the genes of an adult is edited, these changes will not be passed down to the individual’s child, unless it is the genes in the germline. If that is the case, any changes will be inherited by his children and will affect their egg and sperm.
Anyway back to the topic. Genetic modifications have the potential to change the world we live in and make things far more accessible for certain people and get rid of life threatening inheritable diseases.
Here are five reasons why this is exciting.
Genetic modifications can help treat and cure diseases
Genetically modifying genes can make it easier to treat a range of illnesses including heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
Of course, it is hardly as simple as it seems and there are still scientific challenges that exist in the way. For instance, a researcher needs to pinpoint the right genes and make sure that only that specific gene is altered – this is much harder than you think.
A problem with genetic modifications is the moral dilemmas that face researchers.
Firstly, there is the issue of choosing which conditions to treat? You also have to consider the fact that there are people who do not necessarily want to be treated and cured (of the disease), using genetic modifications. While attributes of genetic modification are risky and uncertain, doubts may remain for its functionality vs risk.
Gene editing can stop inherited diseases in its tracks
Many diseases are passed down generations in a family. Huntington’s and Tay-Sachs are some of the few that spring to mind.
But, imagine a world where these can be cut out of the family tree?
You might argue that there are genetic diseases that can be avoided using Vitro Fertilization. While true, this requires that the disease be detected early and also does not work on more complex diseases.
Genetic modifications on the other hand, allows you to make more complicated edits. Case in point; a researcher from the Harvard Medical School recently edited sixty embryonic genes at the same time.
It would be foolhardy to expect things to be as easy when editing on humans, especially since we are still unsure of the full role played by most of our genes. This lack of knowledge means at this moment, researchers cannot confirm the risks involved when trying to edit genes.
This again gives rise to a few ethical concerns. To cure unhealthy individuals, healthy children will need to have their genes edited. But researchers have found that they can not edit diseased mice without affecting healthy genes. This can cause other gene mutation in healthy individuals who can then carry it forward.
Genetic modifications can create a perfect you
On paper, genetic modifications should allow you to create a designer baby. The main traits are handled by a small number of genes that are very straightforward to manipulate. These include the eye color, height and, muscularity.
Anything more will be a tad bit harder. Editing more complex traits like a person’s intelligence is bound to be harder or downright impossible. Additionally, since everything (in our genes) hangs in a state of perfect balance, maximizing one characteristic can affect another.
Moreover, parents might be pressured into improving their kids to the best of their abilities. A wealthy family will have a greater chance than less wealthy families. It would not be a surprise if clinics start selling the latest upgrades!
We can save endangered species
The same technology used to edit human genes can be put to use on animals. Researchers could use it to protect Tasmanian devils, now in danger of extinction due to cancer or edit the chestnut trees so that they have better resistance against chestnut blight, an invasive fungus that has killed over 3 billion chestnut trees.
Currently, we are facing the 6th massive extinction and it is no secret that humans are the cause for most of it. Using gene editing can help revive critically endangered species.
A problem with this is that many are now using gene editing as justification for pulling conservation efforts because and I quote, “the problem can be solved later.”
We can resurrect extinct species with genetic modification
The world has seen many beautiful species die out over the centuries. The Dodo, Woolly Mammoth and the Sabre-toothed cat are just a few examples of animals now extinct.
But genetic modifications can bring back these species or at least a part of them.
How? By mixing the genes from the extinct species into species that currently exist. Today, thanks to The Long Now Foundation, there is hope that the passenger pigeon and the Woolly Mammoth can be brought back to life.
This does not just apply to animals; it could even be used for fruits and vegetables. Many vegetables have lost traits today due to commercial breeding – such as the taste of natural tomatoes – and this can be resurrected by genetically modifying the species.
Like everything else, there are ethical concerns here. What will stop people from blending species and making new species just for the heck of it or for profit and art? What will stop dwarf elephants, tamed lions from being made? Maybe a billionaire will want to give his child a unicorn. Who will stop him?