Humans are undoubtedly getting closer and closer to our science fiction realities, especially when it comes to gene-editing. Having gotten the Nobel Prize in Chemistry just this past year, the CRISPR-Cas9 system serves as the most efficient and widely used gene-editing technology. With the rise in research within the field of genetic engineering, we’ve been able to see significant advantages to using the system such as growing better in a certain region or successfully curing mice of Huntington’s disease. Of course, this raises the possibility of using CRISPR on humans.
In germline gene editing, the genome of an embryo is altered, allowing for the edited genome to be passed down to future generations. Germline editing could be used to completely eradicate diseases such as cystic fibrosis and the aforementioned Huntington’s disease from the human population. It could also be used to enhance certain features. We could literally edit and grow a Captain America…more or less. As appealing as that sounds, there are numerous downsides to pursuing germline editing at this time.
The biggest risk posed by germline editing is that we don’t have enough research in this field to do so in a safe manner. Many traits are often coded for in multiple genes, which means editing them would be a feat. As of where our skill level is now, we can edit for single mutations. Despite how advanced our technology is, we still can’t do this with 100% accuracy.
When using CRISPR, we make a cut in the DNA at a designated spot, delete a portion of DNA or insert a desired strip, and then let nature take over. DNA has ways for it to heal itself, but it may not do so as we would like it to. There is a chance that a random mutation may form somewhere else in the DNA while the cut is healing, which could have deadly consequences.
Germline editing alters the genome of an embryo, permanently altering the DNA while allowing it to stay in the societal gene pool forever. If scientists edit a certain collection of genes and fail to do so successfully, the genome will stay in the human population. People with deadly or undesirable genomes would continue to be found throughout society, posing as one of the biggest reasons why we should know better than to pursue germline gene editing at this time.
As much as we would love to see a real-life Captain America or some form of that, we should consider the repercussions of germline editing at this time. Possibly in the future, if our knowledge in the field and our technology is even more polished, we may be able to pursue genetic engineering. Of course, that wouldn’t be without bringing up various ethical and political controversies, but let’s save that for a different conversation.