International controversy is growing about the potential of the new genetic engineering technologies, especially CRISPR. All sorts of groups are meeting to gain some measure of control over these technologies by setting up agreements on how to evaluate the ethical issues and control the experiments that are done.
These include in 2015 the Hinxton Group, the National Institute of Health, the Welcome Trust and various conferences like one hosted in Washington DC and another in Napa, California. In addition, interested parties are writing editorials that oppose strict limits on or banning alterations of the human germline using CRISPR etc. Most notably Frank Church at Harvard Medical School.
In a previous article on CRISPR (see the August 2015 posting on this web site under Genetic Engineering, “CRISPR”, Breakthrough or Trouble), there is an outline of the technological innovation. The problem is that the development of CRISPR/Cas9 and other technologies have made alteration of DNA too accessible and available even to amateurs playing in their garages. This technology is very accurate and extremely low cost.
As an example, an article in the December 3, 2015 issue of Nature magazine identifies the cost of a widely used genetic plasmid created with the CRISPR-Cas9 technology at $65 or less. It is ordered online and shipped in the normal mail. It requires little specialized training to use.
Most scientists say that serious alterations to genetics are still beyond the hobbyist. They say the CRISPR technology and understanding of it are not enough for mastery or major changes. They also claim that most institutions do all of their experiments as a function of government grants that are not given to hobbyists. Even though there is no direct regulation of the area they claim this indirectly regulates experimentation at least for now.
There are many issues but the one that troubles scientists most is the new ability to cheaply and effectively edit the genomes of all sorts of living entities. Particularly troubling are alternations to germline cells (sperm and eggs) in early human embryos. By definition, germline cell alterations can be passed to future offspring of the resulting human. This raises the specter of “designer babies” with their genes altered to reflect the wishes of expectant parents.
Beyond the specter of eugenics, it also recognizes that in theory altering the germline cells of human embryos can change a number of genetic traits. The elimination of babies carrying harmful, disease-ridden genes that inhabit various family trees is an objective most people would favor. Unfortunately, these potential applications remain a way off into the future.
Of course there are also positive possibilities from CRISPR. CRISPR-Cas9 is being used to develop “gene drives” that spread proper genetic changes quickly throughout an entire population. Groups that want to eradicate malaria are testing a couple of methods on mosquitos. One group is using the technology to produce DNA that is not infected by or is immune to the parasite P. falciparum that causes malaria. The drive represents creating two or more strings of the requisite DNA to be passed on to all offspring. Normally, a mutation is spread to only 50% of the offspring. The “gene drive” feature allows the new DNA to be passed to all offspring.
The second alternative is being worked on at the Imperial College London and involves a gene drive that inactivates genes that control egg production in female mosquitos. They believe this would be a way to drastically reduce the overall population of mosquitos.
The concerns raised with these two approaches relate to the use of gene drives and fear that genetic changes would wipe out mosquitos entirely in an area. This would eliminate a species that might fill a significant need in the local food chain. The fear is there would be no way to call back a change that produced unforeseen effects elsewhere in the DNA.
Already the CRISPR technology is being used to alter the genetic code of plants that are subject to some regulation. This has been identified as a faster and more accurate way of engineering insect resistant strains of crops by disabling specific genes in wheat and rice. Disabling genes is not subject to the same regulation as introducing new genes into an organism i.e. in the European Union. For this reason, some South Korean scientists see this method as a way to side step normal regulation imposed in the EU and elsewhere.
Genetic engineering is a technology area to be mastered and is a governmental objective in countries that have international ambitions. An article in the November 18, 2015 issue of Nature magazine quotes Minhua Hu, a geneticist at the Guangzhou General Pharmaceutical Research Institute as stating, “It’s a priority area for the Chinese Academy of Sciences.”
The availability and the ease of altering genes have prompted a host of new experiments including those overseas. For example, the previously cited article discusses the flurry of experiments taking place in China and research papers being written that describe CRISPR-modified mammals such as sheep, goats, pigs, monkeys and dogs.
In addition, there is discussion in the same article about research in China to increase the muscle and hair growth of goats. So far 10 modified goat kids have larger muscles and longer fur than normal goats. The article calls them “designer livestock”.
Lei Qu, a genetic researcher from Yulin, who has implemented CRISPR-Cas9, is quoted as stating, “We believe gene-modified livestock will be commercialized after we demonstrate (that it) is safe.” He predicts it is a simple way to boost the sale of goat meat and cashmere sweaters from his province in China.
The dilemma faced by scientists the world over is that these new genome splicing technologies almost take these experiments out of their hands and put them into the hands of amateurs. This raises alarm bells in most of the scientific community. Most scientists want to rely on peer pressure to limit the behavior of hobbyists. They feel that if enough organizations voice concern and restraint this will cause neophytes to pause before they try major alterations of genetic material. They want self-regulation rather than have the government step in.
A strong case can be made for government regulation to protect the populous and more importantly the genetics of life itself. It would be so easy to alter the DNA of an organism and set it free in the environment that havoc might result. While government control would surely slow down progress and reduce the personal opportunities all these scientists have to make money, it would protect people and the genetics of all living organisms on the planet. The trade-off would be worth it from the perspective of a non-scientist.
Use the following links to obtain additional information or see the original articles used for reference in this article.