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To Edit or Not to Edit: That is the (Ethical) Question


Published on December 14th, 2019 at 01:09 am

By Alexander Brous

The study of human DNA has been on ongoing research project since its discovery in the late 1860s. With further advancements slowly occurring throughout time, it was not until the early 20th century that scientists knew what a gene was. In 1991, one of the most important explorations in human history arose, the Human Genome Project. The was conducted by numerous international researchers who worked together in order to sequence and map the human genome. When they completed their work in 2003, it was concluded that only one percent of all the encoded DNA influenced the physical attributes of a person. A few years later, the genetic editing tool, CRISPR-Cas9, was created. With this newfound knowledge and genetic editing tool, scientists could determine the genes that could be rearranged in order to obtain a specific physical trait. Within the DNA is a sequence of nucleotides (the basic building blocks in DNA) that encodes the synthesis, or production, of a gene product. But was this breakthrough in genealogy really beneficial for mankind? It is possible to make the argument that genetic diseases could be edited out of someone’s DNA to be cured. However, once the DNA is altered, with either the addition or reduction of a gene, it is not possible for the same gene to be added or taken out again, which could have adverse health effects. Scientists should not be able to genetically edit living organisms because of negative possibilities from medical use, possible consequences if gene editing was to be used, and the ethical aspect to it. Most of the outcomes predicted to happen were almost entirely negative, except for the possibility of gene therapy.

It is possible to make the argument that the controlled use of gene editing to cure genetic diseases should be permissible in modern medicine. It is very difficult to determine when the right situation is to use it. One of the major issues is that scientists are not certain if some genes have more than one function. It was proven that, “...even if researchers do hit the correct target, genes often have more than one function” (Detwiler). For example, if scientists believed that a gene that was causing disease and was actually one that was simultaneously important in maintaining the body's immune system. If a crucial gene was removed thinking it was going to cure something else, it could most likely have life-ending effects. As it has been proven, the offspring of two parents inherit half of their parents’ DNA. If the code for a disease lies within the DNA of one of the parents, it has a possibility to carry on to the offspring. It is possible to edit out the disease, but it is risky as it is hard to know if the gene that they edit controls the function of something else in the body. The germ line, the sequence of cells in line of direct descent which are transmitted to offspring, can only be permanently altered. Once a gene is removed or added, the change can’t be reversed. The “germ line provides an enduring link between all generations of an organism” (Tang). Essentially, every alteration of the germ line is passed down through every subsequent generation. This can become very complicated as it is possible for a gene that was inactive in the germ line of an ancestor to be removed and later be necessary for a vital function in someone who it was passed down to. Even though it is possible to edit out genetic diseases from someone’s DNA, it is too difficult to determine the outcome of the alteration. It is most likely that the effects of the adjustment will have negative effects regardless of what is done. So why would scientists edit genes if they can’t control the outcome? If gene editing were permitted in society, the social consequences could be frightening.

Many scientists have been predicting the dystopian outcomes if genetic editing was commonly used in society. Bioethicists are concerned that if gene editing was officially legal with restrictions, it would slowly lead to more lenient restrictions. They argue that it would be possible for a new genetically superior race to arise, essentially creating a new social class across communities around the world. This would lead to an entirely new type of racial discrimination. Worse, “there is concern that genome editing will only be accessible to the wealthy and will increase existing disparities in access to health care and other interventions” (NHGRI). This could worsen the wealth gap between the rich and poor. Similar to this is editing of the zygotes, such as embryos and germ cells. Most scientists regard the alteration of somatic cells more reasonable because the edits stay within the specific person. Biologists at Harvard University explain that, “Genetic changes to these can be passed down to many future generations, allowing scientists to direct evolution” (Radhika). Negative effects could arise from this as it could possibly alter the genes that were to be passed down to offspring. Most important in the debate over genetic editing is the ethical factor.

The ethics behind gene editing are very extensive and complicated, as there are many factors to consider. Immediately, this new technology and scientific knowledge spread around the world, causing questions as to what possible effects could arise. According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, “...there were about 40 countries that discouraged or banned research on germline editing, including 15 nations in Western Europe, because of ethical and safety concerns” (NHGRI). The unknown factor as to what could result from the technology being used in their countries had initially frightened many. This created a large amount of backlash from scientific institutions. A major concern for scientists was the general safety of anyone who had their genes edited. Once the DNA is edited there is a possibility for “off-target” effects and “mosaicism.” As CRISPR-Cas9 cuts and edits the gene, it “changes the letter and leads to errors in DNA replication or protein synthesis” (Nature.com). This equates to either having the incorrect gene edited or an inconsistency in the amount of targeted genes desired to be edited. Researchers and scientists have already been speculating the possible outcomes if people have easy access to the gene editing technology. For example, in China, the regulations on gene editing are very loose. Scientists there have already been able to work with viable beagle embryos. They altered the DNA in the embryo to produce a beagle that is twice the mass of a normal one. In a sense, these scientists are “playing God” and changing the natural processes of reproduction. The inadequate knowledge on the possible consequences and outcomes of genetic editing is already an early warning sign that scientists should not play with something they can’t accurately control or understand.

In conclusion, gene editing has been an ongoing debate since scientists learned how powerful it could be. It will continue to be a controversial topic as it relates to complex ethical, moral, biological and societal matters. Gene editing could have the potential to be beneficial to society; however, there are numerous unknown outcomes that could have devastating negative effects on humans or other animals. Ethics play an important role regarding whether or not gene editing is entirely ethical. There is a fine line between right and wrong when it comes to altering of DNA, as one mistake could end in the loss of life. Ultimately, it comes down to the personal morals and opinions of the person who is manipulating the genes to decide whether the genetic editing of living things is ethical. If you feel that you or others are not well informed on this controversial topic, it is imperative to gather information from a credible source and share your relevant knowledge with others.

Works Cited

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Detwiler, Jacqueline. “Legal vs. Illegal Gene Editing: Here's What's Banned, and Why.” Popular Mechanics, Popular Mechanics, 4 Dec. 2018, https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/a25385071/gene-editing-crispr-cas9-legal/.

"Genetic editing." Nature, vol. 465, no. 7299, 2010, p. 668+. Gale In Context: Science, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A229068225/GPS?u=paci91811&sid=GPS&xid=d485c4b2. Accessed 7 Nov. 2019.

Tang, Walfred W. C., et al., "Specification and epigenetic programming of the human germ line." Nature Reviews Genetics, vol. 17, no. 10, 2016, p. 585+. Gale In Context: Science,

https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A463480391/GPS?u=paci91811&sid=GPS&xid=f723b866. Accessed 8 Nov. 2019.

“The Human Genome Project.” Genome.gov, National Human Genome Research Institute, 3 Aug. 2019, https://www.genome.gov/human-genome-project.

“What Are the Ethical Concerns of Genome Editing?” Genome.gov, 3 Aug. 2017, https://www.genome.gov/about-genomics/policy-issues/Genome-Editing/ethical-concerns.

"To the crack of doom; Germ-line gene therapy." The Economist, 2 May 2015, p. 71(US). Gale In Context: U.S. History, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A411658885/GPS?u=paci91811&sid=GPS&xid=9ad86c1b. Accessed 8 Nov. 2019.

Ucsf, Ariel Bleicher. “Genome Editing Before CRISPR: A Brief History.” Medium, UCSF Magazine, 23 Oct. 2018, https://medium.com/ucsf-magazine/genome-editing-before-crispr-a-brief-history-f02c1e3e2344.

“What Is a Gene? - Genetics Home Reference - NIH.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 29 Oct. 2019, https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/basics/gene.

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