In February 2012, Harvard college professor and genetic engineer George Church hosted a symposium at the Harvard Medical School titled: “Bringing Back the Passenger Pigeon.” The talk centred on the use of new genome-editing technology that could change the concept of reversing extinction from being a dream to a reality. The technique, known as CRISPR—described as “jaw dropping” by Nobel scientist Craig Mello to the Independent—allows scientists to make precise changes to DNA with ease. Church, who was one of the first scientists able to successfully employ the process in both human and mouse cells, has successfully used this technique today to create functioning elephant cells coding for mammoth DNA.
This achievement marks the beginning of easy, accessible, and precise genetic modification—a possibility feared by many. While the fear of the unknown is normal—if not expected—acting on these fears will come at a cost.
When considering genomic editing, it’s easy to slip into the trap of cinematic exaggeration. We imagine the results given in Splice, the 2009 science-fiction horror film featuring a terrifyingly beautiful humanoid creature that is the product of the work of two genetic engineers that went amuck. Or in Gattaca, where doctors quantify inferior and superior people based purely on their genetic code. In both, we are meant to perceive the notion of genetic modification to improve the human genome—a concept known as eugenics—to be bad. This concept, almost two decades later, somehow still lingers.
In light of Church’s recent success in combining the extinct mammoth’s DNA with that of the very alive elephant, it is easy, if not natural, to immediately consider the ramifications of genetic modification on humans and as such, put a stop to it.
On March 19, 18 scientists, including David Baltimore and Jennifer Doudna, CRISPR/Cas9 co-discovers, published an editorial in Science outlining their fears for the future of gene modification. The editorial, titled “A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification,” urged for the transparency and caution of scientists.
“The possibility of human germline engineering has long been a source of excitement and unease among the general public, especially in light of concerns about initiating a ‘slippery slope’ from disease-curing applications toward uses with less compelling or even troubling implications,” the authors explained.
How are we meant to move forward then?
The implications of genomic modifications for humans is riddled with countless debates in law and bioethics, slowing the progress of scientists—akin to the controversy facing the use of embryonic stem cells. When considering the potential to alleviate human suffering through the understanding of genetic diseases via controlled and intelligent genetic modifications in animal subjects, there is no consideration: Genetic modification must continue, unequivocally.
However, when considering changes to the human genome, the lines become increasingly blurry. An editorial published in Nature echoed the sentiments of those presented in Science by suggesting a ban on all edits to the human germ line. But these types of sentiments place those in the scientific community on the edge of a very steep cliff in which we are allowed to look over, but never jump.
It’s easy to imagine that the use of genetic modification tools will lead into an age of super-humans where we modify our embryos to create children that are smarter, faster, and stronger. Instead, we must imagine that these tools will enable the understanding, and eventual curing, of horrible diseases and aliments afflicting people everywhere. But, like with all new technologies targeted for human use, we must tread carefully. Checks and balances must be implemented to limit—but never halt—the forward progress of tools like CRISPR.
Today, if we possess the skills, the knowledge, and the tools to bring back an animal that was last seen on earth 4,500 years ago, then how can we so nascently predict what will come tomorrow? By stopping, we are failing to meet the very basis of scientific inquiry.