The future of genetic engineering

Making genetics work for everyone

The future of genetic engineering


In 1974, the first ever genetically modified animal was created by Beatrice Mintz and Rudolf Jaenisch. At the time, it was hailed as one of the most important scientific discoveries since humans discovered fire. It wasn't the first time an organism had been altered genetically: this happened the year before, in 1973, when Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen altered a bacteria to make it to make it resistant to the antibiotic kanamycin, but it raised the possibility that, if it were possible in a mouse, it could be possible in humans. It would take another seven years until four more scientists were able to modify a mouse which was able to transfer the altered gene (transgene) on to its offspring - the next great leap forward, and the one that would really open up the field of genetic engineering to endless possibilities.

Genetic engineering has developed at a quickening pace in the relatively short period of time since Mintz and Jaenisch conducted their successful experiment. By the middle of the 1990s, genetically modified foods were being sold in supermarkets, the most famous being the Flavr Savr tomato, which was engineered to have a longer shelf-life. Now, crops are genetically engineered to be able to survive in conditions they wouldn’t normally be able to handle; genetically modified organisms are used to study gene function; and hormones, vaccines and other life-saving drugs are created through the practice.

But genetic engineering hasn't, and won't, stop there. The speed of change over the last fifty or so years in the field raises ethical and moral questions to which there are, as of yet, no clear answers. How we as a species solve these problems will tell us not only something about the global landscape of moral decision-making, but will define precisely where the human race will end up over the next few generations. It's not an exaggeration to say genetic engineering could totally alter the way we live - and these changes won't necessarily be positive.

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what is the future of genetic engineering?

Gene therapy and the CRISPR revolution

Gene therapy, still a relatively new science, has been able to cure some of the most endemic diseases of the modern age. In 2007-2008, Timothy Ray Brown was cured of HIV through stem cell transplantation. In 2011, three years after his therapy had finished, no traces of HIV were found in his blood. Other experimental treatments have managed to ‘cure’ cancer in some patients, such as Layla Richards, who was terminally ill with leukaemia prior to treatment. Two patients were also treated for melanoma in 2006 using ‘killer T cells’ which were genetically made to attack the cancer cells in their bodies.

Fast forward to the 2010s and genetic engineering has been undergoing a veritable revolution. Around a decade ago, scientists discovered a new technique in genetic engineering that focused on using the genes of bacteria to edit the genes of other organisms. Some scientists have suggested CRISPR, as the project became known, is four times as efficient and far easier to use than other genetic engineering practices, and can cut down the process of genetic engineering from months to days. Perhaps most important, the practice is far cheaper than traditional ways of modifying organisms.

So what can CRISPR do? Well, it has already been used to improve hearing in mice, meaning it may be possible to use it to do this in humans at some point. Sickle-cell anaemia has also been treated in mice by editing their bone marrow cells. Scientists believe it may be able to correct cystic fibrosis and cataracts. It has been used to improve the yields of crops, and in the future CRISPR could create drought-resistant crops, meaning the current climate change disaster which has been raising temperatures and reducing levels of precipitation could be partially offset. It could forge extremely powerful antibiotics, and, excitingly and terrifyingly, be used to create ‘gene drives’ which could help control the spread of disease by preventing the passing of a trait from parent to offspring.

It can also be used for more controversial things, too, such as creating designer babies, which some scientists think is just around the corner. CRISPR could be used to easily ‘edit’ out the bad genes in embryos – such as illnesses – and enhance the positives, potentially making people smarter, stronger, and prettier. Jamie Metzl predicts that, much like mothers who choose the eggs they want when using in vitro fertilisation to avoid genetic disorders (such as Huntington’s disease), CRISPR could be used to do similar things. This could be extended to ‘the genetic component of complex human attributes like height, IQ, and personality style.’ Metzl argues this could lead to war, as competing societies genetically engineer their populations in order to gain the upper hand against their opponents, making their civilians smarter and stronger, an ominous prospect that harks back to the eugenics horrors of the twentieth century. But the controversy of genetic engineering doesn’t end there, and isn’t limited to just CRISPR.

Engineering controversy

The scientific consensus is that GM crops are not less healthy, and pose no more risks to health, than food which hasn’t been genetically modified. On populations that have eaten genetically modified food, research – which has been going on for around a quarter of a century – has found no negative effects. Although some scientists have said tests need to be run longer-term, and the general population perceives GM foods as less safe, the reality is that all research to date points to the result that they are as safe as conventional foods.

And yet genetic engineering has had its share of controversy. The very first genetically modified crop fields were destroyed in 1987 by GM activists who believed the practice to be harmful to human life. More recently, Greenpeace has broken into the headquarters of scientific research organisations and destroyed GM crops. Protests have taken place across many countries since the topic first started to be widely publicised in the media, perhaps most famously against Monsanto, a producer of genetically modified organisms. (That being said, much of the protest against Monsanto is also due to its highly unethical trading standards and the environmental pollution it has caused on several occasions.) Other groups protest against certain GM crops due to the environmental damage they can cause. Some crops have been genetically modified to produce their own pesticides which can in turn damage the ecosystem of the surrounding area through cross-pollination; moreover, as the crops themselves can be made resistant to herbicides, farmers are able to use larger amounts of these harmful substances to control their crops. Decreasing crop diversity is another issue that has been raised, as GM crops crowd out non-genetically modified plants from the environment.

Still, in 2010 34% of consumers in the United States were very or extremely concerned about GM foods (admittedly a 3% decrease from 2008, but still a high percentage). 37% of the American public said that GM foods were safe to eat in 2015, compared to 88% of scientists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. What this shows is that the public, through no fault of their own, are still relatively uneducated on GM food. They simply don’t know about the potential risks or lack thereof, or even what GM really means: a survey conducted in 2003 suggested that while most people aren’t fundamentally against the idea, they have lots of questions about the process, utility and regulation of the practice – questions which, as of yet, aren’t being answered. This is as big a challenge to the genetic engineering industry as is the science itself; informing the population as to the usefulness and safety of the practice, especially with regards to commercial products such as food, is a barrier the field needs to overcome.

And the ethical concerns are even starker when it comes to humans. Some scientists believe it is too early to use CRISPR to genetically engineer humans. This is because ‘scientists have recently learned that the approach to gene editing can inadvertently wipe out and rearrange large swaths of DNA’, according to a 2018 article by Vox. Various experiments have shown that CRISPR-edited cells may cause cancer. Moreover, the aforementioned gene drive potential means that characteristics which get passed down from parents to offspring – which are usually passed down with a 50% likelihood – could be essentially chosen at will. Right now, scientists are considering using these technologies to combat things like malaria, by restricting mosquitos so they could only pass down the genes for maleness (for example), meaning malaria-carrying mosquitos could be wiped out in a few generations. Aside from the ecological and environmental concerns of conducting such experiments, this same technology could potentially be used on humans, raising ethical questions to which there may be no clear answers.

In 2018, a scientist in China used CRISPR to create two twin girls who were resistant to HIV. It caused shock, and also outrage, around the world. Scientists worried about the fact that the embryos had no say in the matter; moreover, any generations further down the line would retain these genetic changes. But some defended his work, comparing it to the first successful in vitro fertilisations. Moreover, the concept of ‘playing god’ is a vague one: few reasonable people would suggest that (for example) blood transfusions or vaccinations are forces for evil in the world, but this is ‘playing god’ arguably to the same extent as gene therapy is. In short, the ethical concerns of GM are manifold and complicated.

A genetic future

The likelihood is we won’t see genetic engineering turning into something vicious like the terrifying monster from Splice. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s improbable we’ll be able to create an Amazing Spider-Man and have superheroes running (or swinging) around everywhere (or indeed their counterparts: supervillains). Saying that, the potential to create designer babies is very real, and opens up a whole host of ethical issues which has led some scientists to say that we should put the brakes on genetic engineering, especially CRISPR, until we figure them out. The problem is that CRISPR especially is so simple and cheap that preventing experiments by ‘rogue’ scientists can be difficult. Moreover, we don’t currently know enough about the human genome to safely conduct experiments on humans, even if we decide that’s what we want to do.

Genetic engineering has a long way to go before it can call itself revolutionary though. Aside from the scientific obstacles it faces, it will have to overcome some more practical challenges, the first being convincing the public that it is a force for good, rather than conjuring images of evil corporations playing god. It needs to inform the public in a much better way than it is doing right now, so people are informed and knowledgeable on the subject. Education is the most important way of convincing people of your project.

However, before it begins to educate people, it needs to sort out its quarrel with the environment. With any new technology, the environmental and ecological effects are, in our current age of environmental degradation, the most important to consider and alleviate. The problem with genetic engineering is that a large proportion of the research and implementation is being carried out by private companies, and corporations don’t have the best track record for looking after the planet. The gene drive experiments which may take place could, it’s true, wipe out malaria in at-risk regions, but these introduced traits may spread to other organisms through crossbreeding, destroying ecological systems.

To help figure out these ethical debates, genetic engineering needs to start referring to other fields of study, to become properly interdisciplinary. Philosophers should be asked to help consider potential problems that may occur, as they have been during the debate around AI. Economists need to be included in the debate to reconcile the financial impacts genetic engineering entails. Historians should be consulted with as they are the best source of information about the last time genetics were invoked to improve society around the turn of the twentieth century, meaning society can avoid making the same mistakes. Lawyers should help to create safeguards which protect the environment, people’s rights, and most importantly, future generations. Last but not least, politicians need to work closely with all of these people and share this information clearly and thoroughly, so the general public is sufficiently informed to make the best political decisions about something that could change the way they live forever.