Flooded Planet

Exploring the Future...until we get there

Category: Genetics

Whisper in the CRISPR

It has only been a few short years since the advent of CRISPR, and one instance of ethical impropriety (the one that we know of, and-Wow!-what a doozie) in the usage of this strangely simplified process for carrying out gene editing has already occurred. There will be more. Perhaps many more.

Such overstepping is the whisper that comes along with the usage of this technology. It’s too tempting for some. Some of us cannot resist the temptation to trespass where we dare not tread. But with a new technology that is cheap to manufacture, small enough to ship without much fuss, and apparently easy enough to learn, how do we legislate our way out of the desires, the yearnings to explore, the inevitability to answer questions we never should have asked? We won’t.

This particular researcher only revealed his actions after the deed was already done, and apparently only because it was leaked before he could mount his justifications for changing the human germline in a way that simply goes beyond logical explanation. Well intentioned or not, you can’t undo that. What’s done is done. Those children are altered irrevocably. Some experts have stated that they will possibly suffer in unexpected ways as a result of this one individual’s tinkering. I would have to agree.

We, as a species, will go about addressing the possibility of other such scary prospects in the manner we always do, with big organizations full of big brains documenting all kinds of rules and regulations designed to prevent labs around the world from engaging in risky business such as this researcher undertook, doing his work in plain sight at the university that employed him.

It should work…mostly. Most people don’t want to break rules on purpose and will go out of their way to stay within the bounds of the law. But then there are those scientists, those laboratories in countries around the world, who will skim up close to the edge, feeling the excitement of daring to do something taboo. Will somebody step over the line in a big time way within the next 3-5 years? I’d put money on it.

I equate such daredevilish behavior to the driving habits of those among us on any given highway on any given day, essentially flaunting, not only the law, but good judgment, as well. All the laws on the books don’t stop them from driving like idiots, as though they were the only one on the road who counted, and everyone else being placed in danger as a result is not their problem.

So we’ll listen to that whisper in the CRISPR, so full of promise, so bursting with risk. How will the future play out? We won’t know until we get there, and we can only hope Pandora hasn’t peeked inside her box.

Original Recipe or Extra CRISPR

The idea—the dream and the nightmare—of designer babies has been with us for longer than most of us probably suspect. But the ability to act on the impulse has never been easier, thanks to a new technology known, rather comically, as CRISPR. If you haven’t encountered a news story or two regarding this cutting edge tech, I’d be quite surprised (unless you’re someone who closely follows the Kardashians, in which case you are excused…no seriously, please go…no wait, maybe the Kardashians will use CRISPR to further enhance, so…at least stay tuned).

CRISPR, in a nutshell, offers a revolutionary new tool in the world of gene modification by introducing much more precision in the manner by which a particular strand of DNA is sliced, as well as the manner in which it may be spliced, or altered with new bits of inserted DNA.

Let’s not go into the technicalities of the process, fascinating though they may be (genuinely). Let’s instead state that, aside from the obvious benefits to be realized by such a powerful addition to our arsenal of disease fighting tools, the allure of using it for more commercialized (profitable) purposes is just as obvious. Enter stage right…the designer baby.

Imaginings of designer babies (some would say the products of eugenics by a more subtle, less onerous name) have been around for at least as long as they’ve been making Ken and Barbie, and possibly as far back as say, Mengele, or the ancient Greeks. Wherever the actual truth may lie in there (I’m gonna go with the Greeks, although I’m quite sure ancient Chinese culture probably beat them to the punch somehow), human imaginings of changing each new generation in ways that evolution is simply not capable of have been hanging around since time immemorial.

Of course, as would be expected, the main focus for CRISPR is to introduce new protocols that address existing human-related diseases, such as Sickle Cell Anemia, or Huntington’s, or HIV. No doubt, this is noble and worthy work that should unquestionably be pursued.

But what about the day that surely must come, and probably sooner rather than later, when the conversations you have with your primary care physician, your gynecologist, your obstetrician take on a different character? What happens when somebody throws out the idea that there are now technologies that can greatly increase (perhaps even guarantee?) the chances that your child will be that little girl you always wanted, and that her eyes will be blue, her blonde hair slightly wavy, her height exemplary, and her IQ well above the average? And the price for such desirable traits? Not nearly as expensive as you might have thought and you can pay it off like you do your car.

So you find yourself, referral in hand, walking through the pretty stainless steel glass doorway, surrounded on all sides by beautiful people of all shapes and sizes soaring heights and lighter skin tones? They sure look pretty/handsome (godlike in proportion and structure), their complexions flawless, their crystalline eyes staring down on you, their full lips all but accusing you of taking too long to get to this point, their posted IQs all but insinuating that the decision is a no brainer. My Gawd, you utter. What’s there to think about? You can hardly believe you’ve been granted this choice…of turning yourself around and high-tailing it back through those doors before it’s too late. Original recipe is just fine by you.

Slippery slopes don’t always appear as such until a deluge has covered over the skies and the dry cracked earth turns to slick, broken bone treachery. Such is the case with technologies that blow onto the scene so quickly, with so much promise, so much potential, so much profit to be had.

Such abruptness (I think this is what they call “disruptive technologies” nowadays) prompts some concerned groups to demand that we all collectively stomp on the brakes until we can have a better look at the future. Others will tamp down any such admonishments, much preferring something that tends not to be stopped easily once set in motion, like a jet, or maybe even a rocket.

Whatever may come, it’s coming soon, and the definition of the privileged versus the deprived will take on a whole different meaning. One that accounts for, not only what you have, but also what you have become.

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