Mendel may be turning in his grave, or he might be giving ghostly fist bumps to scientists in China. Watson and Crick may be rubbing their hands together in anticipation, or shaking their heads in condemnation. Last month, China announced that they successfully modified a nonviable human embryo’s DNA, scalping away a predisposed blood disease called beta thalassemia that the could-have-been infant may have suffered. The news is breakthrough for the scientific community.
Though we have hybrid plants, breeders who toy with the physical characteristics and tendencies of dogs and horses, and genetic counselors who consult couples about the potentialities of offspring, this is in a realm of its own. Humans now have a hands-on, intimate, opportunity to directly influence DNA. Forget Punnett squares; this is the stuff of The Twilight Zone (see “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” episode) and H.G. Wells. This opens the floodgates for society, because this takes the chance out of the equation and makes it just…an equation.
In the scientific community, there will be discussion about whether experimentation on humans is kosher. What will the legal rights be of a person born for experimental purposes? The religious community will scream, “Is this playing God?” Even from an historical point of view, a few decades back, does this remind anybody of some Aryans who only wished they could hand-pick traits?
Would these practices be utilized in a purely physical and preventative matter, as in the alleviation of diseases? Could it be used to prevent cancer? Asthma? Allergies? Would it branch over to tendencies: addictive personalities, depression, mental illness? Would there be superficiality in the choices, and would society’s current ideas about beauty cause people to make choices that would upend natural selection? Would “survival of the fitness” become a moot point? Perhaps couples would have the ability to forego unflattering characteristics, “We’ll cut out Grandma’s bulbous nose, Uncle Henry’s effeminate feet.”
These otherworldly possibilities are becoming our reality with the unveiling of CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), segments of prokaryotic DNA. Through CRISPR technology, Cas9 proteins, zinc finger nucleases and TALEN proteins are used to cut segments of a genome. Of China’s 86 endeavors to use CRISPR on human embryos, seven were considered successful.
On U.S. turf, it is foreseeable that such experimentation will be a bigger challenge. Francis Collins, director of that National Institute of Health (also an influential leader of the Human Genome Project) noted that research of this nature will not be funded.The ethical issues arising around this point are heavy, but will shunning the ring entirely be a good choice, or will there be conversation about donning the scientific boxing gloves? This is a matter that involves not only China, but the entire global population, considering the main purpose all living things have here on this earth: procreation. Isolated experimentation, or messing with the very double-helix of creation?
From what has been released, these are the first successful “human” experiments, but China has some smaller, furry primate friends who have already been through the ringer. Genetically modified macaques have already been born using the same CRISPR technology, with the Cas9 protein. Published in an article on theguardian, I quote, “The feat was applauded by some researchers who said it would help them to recreate devastating human diseases in monkeys, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.” How ever will they remember to eat all of their bananas? Macaques have DNA that is 97.5% similar to that of humans, and they exhibit an exceptional awareness of the self, suited for experimentation.
It’s a time to wonder about the what-ifs, to weigh the pros and cons, and come to conclusion. As with all things new, there is fear about consequences and change. Preventative care, or playing with fire? Apprehension and fear or hope and power? If people with modified DNA are going to be born, it will be better to understand the implications and potentials, rather than sit in a dim room reading second-hand lab reports. For now, we look towards China with curiosity and trepidation.