Homo sapiens evolved as a distinct species about 300,000 years ago, and throughout our history we have manipulated the reproduction of other organisms for our own benefit. We’ve used selective breeding to create the crops that feed us, the animals we use for food, and the dogs and cats who share our homes.
But just 45 years ago – not even a blink in the timescale of evolution – scientists developed ways of directly altering the DNA sequences of organisms. The age of gene modification was born. The earliest experiments in bacteria progressed until researchers could manipulate the genetic material of practically any species, creating everything from glow-in-the-dark mice to farmyard animals producing drugs in their milk, and vitamin A-enhanced rice that could prevent half a million people going blind every year.
Transformative as the original technology was, it is rapidly being supplanted by a new system called CRISPR or gene editing. Using this approach, scientists can manipulate the genes of almost any organism, but with a degree of precision, ease and speed that we could only dream of 10 years ago.
Where will this new-found power take us, and are we ready for the journey? Is it ethical to use this technology to change the genetic material of organisms, in a way that might be passed on to future generations? But if the organism is a person is suffering from a brutally lethal and irreversible genetic disease, is it even more unethical to deny them this option? Do humans have a right to use this technology to wipe out “pest” species, and will we cause the collapse of entire biosystems if we do? Who controls the application of this technology, when its very ease of use makes biohacking - perhaps of one’s own genome – a real possibility?
And while researchers improve the technology, and ethicists and governments try to keep up, a very human story of individual and institutional rivalry is becoming increasingly acrimonious. Who owns the extraordinarily valuable intellectual property around this invention, and to whom will the Nobel Prize be awarded?
Nessa Carey has a PhD in virology from the University of Edinburgh and has had successful careers in both the university and commercial settings. She was a Senior Lecturer at Imperial College School of Medicine in London, where she led a research team investigating a genetic disorder that gets worse and worse as it passes down through the generations in an affected family. For nearly ten years she has worked in the biotech industry, trying to take basic science discoveries and turn them into new treatments for human diseases. Over the last four years she has been working with some of the...
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