Imagine a world where, just like in food, human genes can be edited, giving people the power and ability to eradicate genetic disorders, but also unjustly provide a portion of people in the future with advantages over others. For better or for worse, this is likely to soon become a reality, with the recent invention and refinement of the genome editing tool ‘CRISPR-Cas9’.
Every aspect of who we are is determined by our genes, which are tiny units of heredity made up of DNA, which act as instructions for the production of proteins. It is estimated that humans have approximately 20,000 to 25,000 genes in total and although most of our genes are the same between all humans, the 1% or so that aren’t, are what gives each of us our individual traits. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and was originally discovered in certain species of archaea in 1993 by Francisco Mojica. Between then and 2013, scientists across the globe worked on developing a way to use this discovery to their advantage, ending up with CRISPR-Cas9. It differs from all previously developed gene editing tools and techniques because it requires considerably less time and effort to execute, and is substantially cheaper. The actual process does not require a lot of human involvement, because Cas9 (the enzyme that alters the gene) is “led” by guide RNA to the correct location, making CRISPR-Cas9 the most accurate gene editing tool yet.
There are numerous positives to the invention of this new technology, and in these ways, it could help our progress as a species. Having the ability to edit genes gives us the ability to also eradicate genetically inherited diseases such as haemophilia, HIV and some forms of genetic blindness. Hence, we will be able to prolong human lives and decrease the amount of suffering felt by everyone.
However, this endeavour is not risk-free, and without adequate caution being taken, it could easily become harmful. If it is used to prevent too many diseases, scientists predict that new and possibly even more disastrous illnesses could be created, which are immune to the cures we currently have. If the use of CRISPR-Cas9 is not limited to medical purposes, it could possibly be used to create social injustice in the future between people whose genes have been edited, and those whose haven’t.
In 2000, we read the first human genome and today, less than 20 years later, we begin our journey of changing what it means to be human through gene editing, hopefully for the better.
Written by Elisa Karaim, Year 10