The re-engineering of CRISPR-Cas9 in 2014 to accurately target and “fix” or edit specific DNA sequences revolutionized the field of genetic editing. However, these advances have also raised questions about morals and ethics and how far humans should go when editing genes.
CRISPR superhuman context
CRISPR is a group of DNA sequences found in bacteria that enables them to “cut off” lethal viruses that enter their systems. Combined with an enzyme called Cas9, CRISPR is used as a guide to target certain DNA strands so they can be removed. Once discovered, scientists have used CRISPR to edit genes to remove life-threatening congenital disabilities such as sickle cell disease. As early as 2015, China was already genetically editing cancer patients by removing cells, altering them through CRISPR, and putting them back into the body to fight cancer.
By 2018, China had genetically edited more than 80 people while the United States was preparing to start its first CRISPR pilot studies. In 2019, Chinese biophysicist He Jianku announced that he had engineered the first “HIV-resistant” patients, being twin girls, sparking a debate on where the limits should be drawn in the field of genetic manipulation.
Most scientists reportedly think genetic editing should only be used on non-inheritable procedures that are essential, such as treating existing terminal diseases. However, gene editing may lead or make it possible to create superhumans by altering genes as early as the embryo stage. Some experts argue that physical and psychological challenges such as deafness, blindness, autism, and depression have often encouraged character growth, empathy, and even a certain kind of creative genius. It is unknown what would happen to society if each child’s genes could be perfected and all “imperfections” removed before their birth.
The high cost of genetic editing may only make it accessible to the wealthy in the future, who may then engage in gene editing to create “more perfect” children. These children, who may be taller or have higher IQs, may represent a new social class, further dividing society due to inequality. Competitive sports may publish regulations in the future that restricts competitions to only “natural-born” athletes or creates new competitions for genetically-engineered athletes. Certain hereditary diseases may be increasingly cured before birth, lowering the overall cost burden on public and private healthcare systems.
Implications for CRISPR being used to create “superhumans”
Wider implications of CRISPR technology being used to edit genes before and possibly after birth may include:
- A growing market for designer babies and other “enhancements” such as exoskeletons for the paraplegic and brain chip implants to enhance memory.
- The reduced cost and increased use of advanced embryo screening that may allow parents to abort fetuses found to be at high risk of serious disease or mental and physical disabilities.
- New global standards and regulations for determining how and when CRISPR can be used and who can decide to have a person’s genes edited.
- Eliminating certain hereditary diseases from family gene pools, thereby providing people enhanced healthcare benefits.
- Countries gradually entering into a genetic arms race by the mid-century, where governments fund national prenatal genetic optimization to programs to ensure that future generations are born optimally. What “optimal” means will be determined by the changing cultural norms that emerge in future decades, in different countries.
- Potential population-wide decreases in preventable diseases and a gradual reduction in national healthcare costs.
Questions to comment on
- Do you think embryos should be genetically engineered to prevent certain types of disabilities?
- Would you be willing to pay for genetic enhancements?