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Genetic Engineering

What is CRISPR?

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WHAT IT IS

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There are two types of genetic "edits" or mutations: (1) somatic and (2) germ-line. [National Institutes of Health] It is important to know that:

  • (1) Somatic mutations are not passed down to offspring.
  • (2) Germ-line mutations are passed down to offspring.

August 2017: The first successful editing with CRISPR on human genomes in the U.S. was performed. [National Geographic]

WHY IT MATTERS

 

SOCIAL: Scientific developments often receive much attention in the media and public. Often, these technologies are not fully realized and will start to become functional decades later. It is critical for the public to understand what exactly the advancement is and what it could mean for future generations.

 

Opinion 1: ILLEGAL AND IMMORAL

Against the law

Human germ-line modifications (using genetically altered embryos or gametes to produce a child) are banned in 29 countries.

 

Unintended mutations

Some worry that off-target mutations or edits to the genome could cause unplanned damage. [National Geographic]

This could take the form of mutations during fetal development, dangerous health concerns for the mother, and/or long-term health and development consequences. [National Human Genome Research Institute]

 

Immoral

Many in and out of the scientific community believe CRISPR should never be used on humans. "As of 2014, 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." [National Human Genome Research Institute]

 

Opinion 2: ADVANCE AND EXPLORE

Cure

CRISPR could be used to treat or eliminate disease-causing genes, like Alzheimer's, malaria, and Huntington's. [Smithsonian]

 

Exploration

Some argue that keeping CRISPR illegal limits exploration and knowledge of all possibilities for the technology.

This argument has caused many countries, like the U.S., U.K., and Sweden, to give a "yellow light" to scientific researchers to explore. [Science]

 

Natural can be bad

Some believe that not all-natural does not mean that it is “good” for humanity. For example, if we protected all natural things, we would not use antibiotics to kill bacteria, practice medicine, or combat drought and famine. [National Geographic]

WHERE WE ARE NOW

  • Feb. 2018: Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority in the U.K. approved an Institute in London to modify human embryos using CRISPR - the second-time human embryos have been used in such research. [The Guardian]

  • April 2019: Listen to NPR interview on CRISPR trials with cancer in humans.

  • Oct. 2020: Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on CRISPR. [The New York Times]

THINGS TO THINK ABOUT

  • Dive deep into peer-reviewed hopes and challenges of CRISPR.
  • If you had access to knowledge about the genetic makeup of your unborn child, what would you do?
  • Many adults chose to adopt if known genetic mutations are present. Would you do the same?
Key Vocabulary