Genetic Modification: a nightmare for humanity or a gateway to prosperity?
Getting the entire human genome transcribed
It was seemingly like a tightly closed door that is difficult for many to open, but thanks to the efforts of scientists and their painstaking experiments, in the year 2000, the most important achievement of mankind came to be.
Not many years after this great achievement, Researcher Jennifer Doudna from the University of Berkeley – California announced in 2012 the magical way that allows modifying and controlling genes. What was merely an imagination for scientists has become a reality on the ground through primitive infinitesimal creatures: bacteria.
CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a technology that was discovered in several bacteria species after scientists studied their genomes and discovered that they preserved sections of the DNA of certain viruses that were infecting bacteria as part of their own genome. Later, it turns out that it is the defense mechanism that bacteria use to develop immunity against these viruses.
Discovering how this defense mechanism works was a real revolution:
After the bacteria is infected with the virus, they cut parts of its DNA using some enzymes and keep them as part of their genetic material. If they are infected again with the virus, they easily recognize it because they keep their own fingerprint and thus work to dismantle their DNA and prevent it from copying itself.
What Jennifer Doudna announced in 2012 was that she and her research team had found a complete control and programming method for the CRISPR system that would enable them to modify the way they wanted and the gene they wanted exactly.
The beginning of the moral debate:
Access to this possibility sparked widespread controversy and raised many ethical questions in the scientific community, most notably how to use technology on human embryos. However, before addressing the opinions calling for making this technology available and applying it to humans and opinions calling for its restriction and downscaling, we discuss four basic concepts whose intersections determine the spaces and lines of discussion, as follows:
- Treatment: Recuperating from diseases.
- Improvement: Giving additional benefits to those who are healthy.
- Body cells: The cells from which genetic traits are not passed on to the following generations during the reproduction process.
- Reproductive cells: The cells from which genetic traits are passed on to the following generations during the reproduction process.
If we look, for example, at the intersection of concept 1 with concept 3, we will not find problems in applying this technique, as patients will be treated and the results of the modifications that occurred on their cells will end without being passed on to their children.
But if we look at the intersection of concept 2 with concept 3, we are talking about what looks like plastic surgery, which does not raise many ethical questions.
The real questions begin to arise when thinking, for example, about trying to treat diseases by modifying the reproductive cells in advance so that the cells of the newborn are devoid of genes that cause some diseases, which technically results in “modified babies”.
Questions increase more and more whenever scenarios for modifying reproductive cells are presented and discussed precisely because they will contribute to changing future generations and beyond, whether that modification is a “treatment” or “improvement”. There is another discussion about the exact definition of treatment and improvement and clearly distinguishing between them (Is controlling deafness a treatment or an improvement? Is controlling one’s height a treatment or an improvement? etc..).
Arguments in favor of expanding the use of this technique:
- Making room for this technology will contribute to protecting the human race from many diseases that have been a nightmare for people for years such as AIDS, anemia, cancer and others.
- This technology offers the possibility of modifying the genes of other creatures to become more beneficial or less harmful to humans, as it is possible, for example, to modify the genes of mosquitoes that transmit malaria in order to eliminate this disease that has claimed millions of lives.
- This technology will enable countries to modify plants to adapt more to the current climatic conditions and to produce crops in larger quantities for longer periods during the year and with better quality, which may present a solution to famine.
- This technique is characterized by being the most accurate technique so far for genetic modification. It is also characterized by being inexpensive, so the expansion of its use will contribute to increasing research related to serious diseases that affect humans, developing the medical field, and opening new, broader horizons for the search for medicines and vaccines that were difficult to obtain in the past.
Arguments against expanding the use of this technique:
- The benefit that will be reflected on humanity and the problems that exist in the world today are not considered sufficient justification to infringe on human dignity and body because this technology will make a person control his fellow human being and how his life goes, and it may produce children with diseases or deformities that did not exist before.
- Intervention of this kind is considered manipulation of the human being and turning people into pre-programmed robots to perform certain tasks, as Russian President Vladimir Putin said in one of the dialogue sessions: “We can imagine that engineers will develop specific characteristics during the process of creating a genetically modified human being to be a genius mathematician or a creative musician; it can also be a soldier who fights with courage and ferocity without feeling the suffering of others or being sympathetic to them.” (1)
The Al Jazeera network’s Maidan website (2) shares a report published by the Guardian newspaper saying: “An American military agency is investing tens of millions in developing genetic modification techniques, which the United Nations has warned of. Moreover, the French armed forces recently obtained approval to develop genetically modified soldiers.” Therefore, this technology should not be widely used, especially on humans.
- The absence of errors during the experiments is not guaranteed at all. According to the magazine (Nature) in its Arabic edition (3), Jennifer began to feel serious safety concerns. Her concerns began during a meeting in 2014 when she found a researcher with a PhD presenting his research project which is about engineering a virus that would transfer CRISPR components into mice to create a model of lung cancer in humans. Concerns lie in that a simple mistake in DNA design could lead to the development of genetically modified viruses that cause other diseases in humans.
- Genetic modification using this technique may produce an environmental defect that is difficult to contain. Researchers are concerned about changing the genetic characteristics of an entire class or sex, or eliminating it completely, as this leads to unknown effects on the ecological system and ecological balance. This means, for example, the emergence of another class of pests that may affect vultures, predators or food breeds. (3)