CRISPR the genetic scissor: Alluring or repelling?

The marvels of human discovery has no bounds. From reaching the moon to creating vaccines, man has always been on the lookout for creating an impact, be it influential or destructive. CRISPR is one such discovery which can revolutionize treatment of diseases. When man landed on moon, people talked about how we may corrupt it. When he created vaccines, people talked about how it may kill instead of curing. Discoveries are followed by heavy criticism. Sometimes, these can be ignorant ramblings. Sometimes, a warning of the inevitable. So, when CRISPR was discovered, critics implied that it may lead to the extinction of an entire species! Is it a useless rambling or a warning?

What is CRISPR?

CRISPR is a gene editing technique which allows us to edit our very origin, the DNA. In simple words, just like using a CTRL C, CTRL V and DEL on our computers, CRISPR allows to us to delete defective gene, copy a good gene and allows us to paste it in place of the mutated gene. Instead of taking care of the aftermaths of a disease causing mutated gene, we now cut it altogether and thus eliminate the disease altogether. Indeed a genetic scissor.

The silver lining of all this is that, it is extremely efficient, fast and cost conservative. Yes, hearing about gene cutting and editing, you could’ve been convinced that it isn’t for the common man. But no, you are gravely mistaken. In fact the reason some people consider it a curse is because of its affordability and efficiency, which when misused, can cause some serious irrevocable damage to the chain of lives.

The science behind

If you do not want to get into the details, then you may very well skip this heading and move onto to the next. But let me tell you, devil’s in the details! Much like a coded computer program our genes are essentially coded patterns of chemicals: adenosine(A), cytosine(C), guanine(G) and thymine(T). Our DNA is a specific arrangement of 6 billion of these chemical building blocks. Just like how a single error in the computer program can disrupt its functionalities, a single error in arrangement of A,C,G,T results in genetic diseases. 1 error among 6 billion and everything breaks into chaos. Read more here.

For instance, lets consider sickle cell anemia where our body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells as some of the cells become ‘sickle’ shaped leading to shortage of blood flow. The sickle shape is occurs when A is replaced with T. Without CRISPR, a person suffering from sickle cell anemia has a 15% chance of curing it by bone marrow transplantation, a costly solution. With CRISPR, all we have to do is correct the error. Cut the additional T, prepare a healthy A, and insert it in the place of the second T. Voila, you are now free of sickle cell anemia with your pockets not emptied!

The ethical concerns

The major concern revolving around CRISPR is the aftermaths it may cause. While trying it rectify a genetic error, we may by mistake create a new one by cutting excessive DNA, or pasting a different one. An individual impaired with such unintended consequences of CRISPR, not only suffers himself, but can also pass it to his/her generations due to gene-drive. Gene drive is preferentially inherited by all offspring which in turn can pass it on to their offspring.

CRISPR is actively being used to modify genes of animals and insects. We can now design plants with higher yields and with higher nutritional content, animals which are susceptible to diseases, and even mosquitoes which are rendered sterile. This can lead to the extinction of the entire mosquito species. This can disrupt the entire food chain as a species whose food source was the extinct species, will now be endangered too, setting off a chain reaction.

Designer Babies?

With CRISPR science fiction can come to reality. CRISPR allows us to modify our genes. Genes are who we are. So it literally allows us to modify who we are! Genetically editing human embryo instead of kids or adults, can result in creating the ‘ideal’ baby. Genes which promote increased muscle strength, brain activity can be pasted which allows babies born to be more healthy and intelligent.

You know where this can lead to and the increased concern this can provide. With CRISPR additionally being cost effective, who is to say no to a healthier intelligent baby? This leads to unnatural selection, defying Darwin’s evolutionary natural selection model, producing a race of superhumans. Even though the CRISPR on human embryos is highly disallowed, some may try to misuse it, causing devastating effects.

Concluding remarks

The world is moving at an alarming pace. Who knew 20 years ago that you can communicate across seas with just one click on the phone. While as alarming as it maybe, it has also lifted people up, proving that advancements do more good than bad, forcing us to go with the flow. It is up to the ethics of humankind to keep the good-bad balance and make sure that advancements not only improve the lifestyles of humans, but also the compassion in our hearts, for we are nothing but borrowed fragments of compassion, left by our ancestors.

 

Compassion isn’t about giving solutions, it is about giving all the love you’ve got.

-Cheryl Strayed