Science is an ever-changing field, as we learn more with the help of better technology, be it stronger microscopes or bigger telescopes. As the center’s science scholar, I wanted to spotlight the most recent happenings within the science community.
Most recently, genetic editing has been a hot topic. Genetic editing opens an entirely new world for scientists, more specifically molecular biologists and geneticists (which has been my area of interest/research as I obtain my biology degree).
Genetic editing refers to modifying a gene that is already present. It requires knowledge of the DNA sequence one wishes to modify, which further requires what is called an annotated genome for the organism to be altered. An annotated genome is basically a mapping of the entire genome (genetic material) of an organism. The world of science has been hyperfocused on this since the completion of the Human Genome Project (HGP) in 2003, which was headed by biotechnologist Craig Venter. He invented the method for accomplishing this monumental feat, as well as being the first human to have his entire genome sequenced. His book, A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life, goes into greater detail of this process.
Once the 13-year long project had been completed, there was knowledge of the sequence we wished to modify. It was not for a goldfish or a mouse. It was for us, Homo sapiens. There still remained the issue of how to edit the fully sequenced genome. In 2012, two women, Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna, created the solution to this complex problem with a two-part system known as CRISPR-Cas9. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, and Cas9 is an enzyme (protein that catalyzes/speeds up chemical reactions). Together, they work as something analogous to a pair of molecular scissors that can cut out a section of DNA, leaving room for another to be inserted into.
Now, the genetic map for humans had been completed, and a molecular pair of scissors and glue had been created to edit the map. Hence, the term genetic editing arose. This has caused significant buzz within the scientific community, as with this newfound power comes a wide range of possibilities. These possibilities include the current clinical trials underway in five treatment areas: blood disorders; cancers; eye disease; chronic infections; and protein-folding disorders, with the crucial condition of, “all current CRISPR clinical trials are intended to edit specific cells or tissues without affecting sperm or eggs, meaning no DNA changes can be passed onto future generations”1.
The controversy arises on the opposite end of the healing perspective. Hypothetically, nothing is stopping someone with the proper technology to edit any gene within the human genome, and the term “designer baby” has become normalized for this idea within the scientific world. Essentially, one would pick the exact type of child they wanted – hair color, height, weight and anything else imaginable that is controlled within the human genome – to make their designer baby.
This puts the Nobel Prize-winning science in the hands of legislation to discuss (and determine) the ethics of not what can be done with this technology, but what should be done. A prime example of this would be Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, who used CRISPR-Cas9 to create two edited twin girls, selecting for HIV resistance (by turning a gene named CCR5 into a mutant form that prevents the virus from invading cells). Jiankui was successful in pulling off this feat at the Southern University of Science and Technology, and as a result, is now serving a two-year sentence in jail. This proves the technology is currently being used, and further applications of it are not far behind.
As a biology major, this topic has been presented multiple times during my four years at Wilkes. Initially, genetic engineering had been mentioned in my first elementary courses. In my senior-level molecular biology courses, genetic engineering has made its way into class discussion as well. It touches across many different disciplines that other students may be involved in, such as the socio-economic effect this could have (paying a certain amount of money for a specific “designer baby”) or the financial/marketing potential this has for those who are able to properly advertise and price this technology. From a scientific standpoint, it is enthralling Nobel Prize worthy work, but the application can be intimidating and have various consequences.
Jinek, M., et al. “A Programmable Dual-RNA-Guided DNA Endonuclease in Adaptive Bacterial Immunity.” Science, vol. 337, no. 6096, 2012, pp. 816–821., doi:10.1126/science.1225829
Money Image: http://cliparts.co/money-symbol
Designer Baby Image: https://theday.co.uk/stories/debate-rages-as-first-designer-babies-born
Molecular Scissor Image: https://genetics.thetech.org/editing-our-dna-molecular-scissors