Most people are familiar with Hasbro’s popular children’s toy, Mr. Potato Head. Whether you’re an avid Toy Story fan, or encountered upon product in your childhood, most can recall the various arms and legs, noses and mustaches, that created the appeal of a destructible toy. Other companies have similarly followed suit, with Mattel’s famous Barbie Doll equipped with thousands of various removable outfits to date, as well as Polly Pocket’s removable hairstyles and body parts arriving in 1983. These toys all have one thing in common; they call upon the innovative spirit of mankind that yearns to perfect not only his surroundings, but himself. It’s the same instinct that drove the homo erectus to migrate out of Africa into Southeast Asia 1.6 million years ago, as well as the reason that your next door neighbor just had plastic surgery to narrow the outline of her nose. It is evident in any pool of age, gender, race, background, or ethnicity; consciously or not, we are all striving to make ourselves better. So what if our own DNA held the answer to man’s undying quest?
In 2001, the Human Genome Project released a 90 percent complete map of the three billion base pairs within the human genome. The research was based upon the work of Nobel Prize winner Frederick Sanger, who in the mid-1970s developed strategies for sequencing DNA. The project in 2001 cost about $100 million dollars to sequence a single person’s DNA. Today, it costs just under $1000. But how does this apply to the potential betterment of mankind? Primarily, in 2012, three genetic researchers developed a technique called Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, otherwise known as CRISPR. In very brief terms, CRISPR gives scientists the ability to recognize clusters of genes with repeated traits within a human genome, and then to be able to cut and paste DNA where they please, forever changing the perspective of genetic engineering. For many, CRISPR symbolizes the eradication of thousands of issues that have plagued us since the dawn of man: Alzheimer’s disease, blindness, cystic fibrosis, deafness, sickle cell anemia, to name some. The end to all of these ailments are at the tips of our fingers, and many supporters of human genetic engineering feel the tug of natural instinct beckoning from a pain-free future.
However, we must remember what is at stake. Yes, it would be incredible to have the ability to do any with many of the world’s most pressing ailments, but where do we draw the line? Organizations such as the Human Code Foundation were formed to try and educate an ignorant public about the significant dangers that human genetic engineering poses. First, is the physical, as there holds the risk that the engineering does not work, and even more so that it backfires. Say we take the Asian Carp, a species well-known to the Great Lakes not only for being invasive, but for pushing other, American-native fish to the brink of extinction. Because of CRISPR’s ability to not only alter the DNA of one fish, but all of its offspring, we could potentially create an all-male generation of carp, or a generation unfit for American waters, essentially exterminating the fish from the inside out. Tempting, but what happens if one of these fish was once again placed in foreign waters? Immediately, we are running the risk of not only eliminating a pesky species in our own waters, but significantly altering the animal kingdom in ways that we could not expect. But it’s not only animals that pose a threat. Jennifer Doudna, one of the three main researchers accredited with the development of CRISPR, in her recent TED talk relayed that it’s probable that within the next ten years, we will see clinical trials and even approved therapies for human genetic engineering. However, she stresses the perils of the creations of perfect humans, where the financially elite would be able to buy their way into a preferred genome, where suddenly CRISPR is not only meant for eliminating anemia or Alzheimer’s disease, but for ensuring blue eyes and clear skin in a child, or cherry-picking the DNA necessary for an Olympic marathoner. As the technology necessary for genetic engineering is easily manageable to a Princeton bio-technician as it is to a smart high-schooler with some lab equipment in their garage, scientists are calling to the national legislature to legally manage the limits of HGE, lest we fall to the increasingly tempting voice of eugenics.
It’s not that the appeal of human genetic engineering isn’t palpable, to most, it is in-line with man’s natural affinity for betterment. Genome editing in mosquitoes has already shown significant progress towards being able to eliminate the spread of infectious diseases through these insects, further proving the potential triumphs of HGE. Supporters of the engineering stress that the human race has already irrevocably altered the evolution of the natural world, whether through the domestication of dogs through selective breeding, or the outbreak of genetically modified food. If you Google searched how our fruits and vegetables looked before we molded them into a preferred form, you would be able to see the analogical before and after photos of the human race due to genetic engineering. If we are already evolving the world around us, what difference does it make whether we use technologies such as CRISPR to hasten the change? The answer is this: before we are ready to use human genetic engineering, the human race needs to take a deep look at ourselves and our history. Politicians must push to make legislation surrounding HGE save us from our own instinct. The public must be educated and educate itself about the ethics that have caused CRISPR’s founders to lament over their work in the same way that Einstein did over the atom bomb. Primarily, our species needs to ask ourselves one question: Yes, we have proven ourselves capable of altering our world, whether for better or for worse. But are we truly ready to take evolution into our own power, and, namely, are we ready to become God?