It is no question that homo sapiens are different from one another on a number of levels. We may each have 23 pairs of chromosomes; however, no two humans are genetically identical, or at least, not yet.
With the innovation of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR-Cas9) system, science now has the power to genetically modify human genomes and even cure hereditary diseases affecting the lives of millions. The primary mechanism of CRISPR is that it allows human cells to take record of the viruses they have been chronically exposed to and with the help of enzymes (Cas9) and molecules (gRNA), DNA sequences can be altered, removed, and enhanced. To put it in simple terms, CRISPR technology functions very similarly to fixing a typo in a Microsoft Word program. Whenever there is a grammatical error or misspelled word, we can delete it and cut it out of that sentence and put new, correctly spelled words in. Likewise, when we have viral DNA (typos) integrated in our bacterial genomes, CRISPR does the cutting and pasting of altered DNA sequences through Cas9 and gRNA.
The Cas9 enzyme is responsible for molecularly cutting out problematic strands of DNA, and the guide RNA (gRNA) binds to the target sequence precisely modifying the genome. Research has already been conducted and has proven that the use of the CRISPR-Cas9 system has been effective in extracting DNA from the HIV virus that is infecting cells. Additionally, Chinese geneticists have already begun to use this powerful technology to edit the genetic composition of human embryos. A number of ethical concerns have arisen from technological advancements like this, which brings me to explain somatic versus germline editing and enhancement. Somatic cells are the non-reproductive cells that make up the vast majority of cells we have in our body, such as skin, brain, and blood cells. In contrast, germline cells are the DNA that get passed on to the next generation (reproductive cells).
Somatic gene editing is beginning to be integrated in modern medicine practices to cure illnesses like Huntington’s disease, sickle cell anemia, and as previously mentioned, HIV. Germline editing is where the line of ethics becomes convoluted. This is because germline alteration is used for enhancement of existing genes in adult cells and even predicting your offspring’s risk for chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Our complex polygenic traits, like our height, intelligence, and body weight, are scored and predicted by a polygenic score.
Science now has the power to genetically modify human genomes…
Sophisticated technology like CRISPR can provide future opportunities to genetically engineer humans to have stronger bone density, less body odor, and the eye color of their choice. Science fiction may not be so fictitious any longer if the ability to genetically modify the embryos of future generations becomes legal. It is no question that the cutting-edge power of the CRISPR-Cas9 system could put an end to disease and the suffering of so many once and for all; however; how much power is too much?