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Essay: Genetically engineering a human embryo

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  • Subject area(s): Science essays
  • Reading time: 4 minutes
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  • Published: 2 March 2022*
  • File format: Text
  • Words: 1,160 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 5 (approx)
  • Tags: Gene editing essays

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Should we do it? Would it make us a ‘better’ species? In a world of advancing technology, we suddenly have the power to edit our DNA like a word processor; we could potentially eliminate the chances of inherited diseases altogether which would ultimately save countless lives. However, this may open a door to creating genetically enhanced, ‘designer’ babies, leading to a real, new world of genetic dystopia. Curing harmful diseases or engineering designer babies are technically not that different, but are miles apart ethically. Humans now have tools that can exceed the rate of evolution.

It is no longer a question of if we can, but a question of if we should.

DNA is one of the most complex molecules of life present in all living organisms. It contains sets of unique genes act as the blueprint for different characteristics of an individual. Revolutionary technology called ‘CRISPR-Cas9,’ discovered in 2012, is becoming increasingly popular as it allows scientists to both remove and replace unwanted sections of DNA that contain damaging mutations, which will inevitably lead to formation of inherited diseases in the individual. There are thousands of inherited diseases in a family that can run through generations – some of which are untreatable and are thus devastating to possess. In addition, they are also far more common than one initially think; individuals who fear the dangers of genetic engineering do not consider the uncertainties in the natural way we reproduce. According to an article published by The Guardian, 1 in 25 of us will acquire a genetic disease at birth, which will remain for the rest of our lives – which is often the source of a short lived life. With gene editing, scientists are able to manipulate our DNA, erasing any chance of infected genes. Although this practice can be effective, there are undeniable risks involved.

Human genetic modification must be completed during the earliest stages of embryonic development and those changes made will be passed onto future generations so it is essential to avoid damaging slip-ups and side-effects. An article published by ‘The Economist,’ focused around a study conducted in Cambridge, England about the genetic changes in mice and human cells. It was stated that about 20% of cells that were experimented on, contained unintended deletions or alterations of significant sections of DNA, caused by using CRISPR. This therefore leads to the possibility that single genes or even sections of DNA could be falsely targeted by the editing process – raising concerns that gene-editing might trigger defects rather than prevent them. There are many methods of using CRISPR, some of which are safer and more efficient than others. British scientist, Dr Robin Lovell-Badge, reveals that the method used in the experiment was unreliable: “it is not clear that the specific protocols used in the paper would relate much to any sensible use of genome-editing clinically”. With technology, new forms of the technique will be created, with the goal of enhancing its exactness and effectiveness. Nevertheless, there has been, and always will be risks that come along with technology as complex as this – not only to the individual but the next evolutionary stage of human society is at stake. Have we already gone too far…?

On November 25th 2018, Chinese biophysics researcher, Dr He Jiankui, claimed to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies using the CRISPR-Cas9 technology. The twin girls names Lulu and Nana were brought into the world with their DNA edited as embryos to prevent them from contracting the HIV virus – a failure of the immune system that weakens over time until it is no longer able to fight off infections. The scientist claims that the twins were born healthy and will be monitored for the next 18 years. This research raises a significant number of ethical and moral concerns. In an article published by the BBC, Prof Julian Savulescu, an ethics expert at the University of Oxford argues that the artificial modification of genes are “capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer, this experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit”. However, if Dr Jiankui’s creation were to be fully successful, surely this could be the proof needed to end destructive diseases like HIV for good. Only time will tell.

Should we be encouraging scientists to manipulate and control nature or in other words trying to play God. Editing ones DNA may be quick to do but it’s effect can last centuries, one wrong move and the future of our species may be at risk.

Choosing to enhance the social rather than medical traits of our future generations are most likely to be initially left alone, yet that’s not to say that this won’t happen in the near future. As our knowledge of molecular biology advances and technology improves, the temptation will grow. For instance, if you were to remove the chance of an inherited disease in your offspring, why not say, throw in perfect eyesight, improved muscular structure or enhanced intelligence. This is a slippery slope where being genetically modified may become the new standard which may worsen already existing discrimination. Disorders such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease are caused by single gene mutations, meaning that it is relatively easy to pinpoint its location and remove it. Desirable traits such as having a specific eye colour and intelligence, to name a few, can include a huge number of genes – the vast majority of them are unknown and would be extremely difficult to manipulate. So until further notice, designer babies are a far-off prospect.

The technology to genetically modify whole genomes will likely be expensive which thus raises concerns regarding wealth and inequality; what if only the rich can afford to edit genes?, but caring for a child that has a serious genetic disease can be just as, or even more costly. In addition, a child born with a genetic disease is likely to experience a lifetime of suffering due to their parents being unable to afford genetic editing. Is this fair? As technology progresses and becomes more precise, it may well become apparent that failing to edit the mutated genes of embryos is unethical as it condemns children to a life of unnecessary pain and distress. Furthermore, it could be argued that choosing to genetically engineer humans is unnatural; since the beginning of life, natural selection and random mutations are what caused the biodiversity we have on earth today. Should we be encouraging scientists to manipulate and control nature or in other words, trying to play God? Editing DNA may be quick to do but it’s effects can last centuries. One wrong move and the future of our species may be at risk.

Is it ethical to modify the DNA of human embryos? The jury is out on that. It is still a global controversy that must be thought out with care for the sake of humankind.


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