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Since the beginning of time, it has been the goal of humanity to find ways in which to live longer and healthier. It is a never-ending pursuit of scientists to continue to find ways to combat disease, save endangered species, and improve the food supply. One of the highly debated solutions that scientists have come up with in the past forty years is gene editing, a type of genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, deleted or replaced in the genome of a living organism using engineered “molecular scissors.”
Since its initiation in the 1980s, gene editing has come a long way. Within the past few years, research labs all over the world have started using a new technology called “CRISPR” that is much faster and cheaper in making specific changes in the DNA of humans, animals and plants compared to previous techniques. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, which refers to the distinctive structure of repeated palindromic sequences in bacterial genomes. These CRISPR sequences are very important in the immune system – when a bacterium is threatened by a viral infection, the CRISPR sequence can stop the attack by cutting up the genetic material of the virus.
The process of CRISPR is very complex in that after the immune system removes the invading viral DNA, short sequences called spacers are inserted between the CRISPR sequences and act as genetic memory of previous infections. This allows for the CRISPR defense system to be prepared if another infection by the same virus should occur by matching the spacer sequence and cutting out the viral DNA once again using nucleases.
Applications of the CRISPR system are varied in that it is advantageous in fighting viral diseases that infect needed bacteria in the world’s food supply, leading to greater sustainability and shelf life. In addition, scientists now know how to utilize CRISPR RNAs in humans by designing and building RNA molecules that match the DNA sequence in the human cell. Once this occurs, the CRISPR system works in human cells the same as it does in bacterial cells, being able to add, replace or delete genes in a DNA sequence. The overarching benefit from this discovery is that it allows for scientists to make DNA models with precise genetic changes in studying and treating human disease. Eventually, scientists hope to use CRISPR technology to correct mutant genes and reverse disease symptoms in regards to genetic disease.
With the rise of this new and groundbreaking technology, debates about the moral ramifications have come along with it. While gene editing has the potential to be very beneficial in the treatment of diseases, many are concerned that it will also be used to create designer babies by engineering traits like strength and beauty. It could cause a social divide between genetically engineered babies and natural born ones; furthermore, it will be a costly practice that could only be available to some people and not others. There is also the possibility that alterations could be made on unintended genetic sequences, leading to unexpected results. Overall, there is still much time before gene editing and the CRISPR technology are perfected to engineer a designer baby. All that is for certain is that scientists will keep working to discover ways in which to improve the prosperity of the human race through science.