By Vani Kumar.
Running into someone you recognize, you immediately pull up all the information you know about the person- name, relation, job. This kind of information is immediately stored in our memory when we meet someone new, notice something different about our surroundings, or learn something new. It gets stored in our memory so we can recall it at a later time. When we make a mistake and fix it, this is stored in our memory too, so we don’t make the same mistake again- we learn and adapt. Our immune system does the same with disease, it recognizes disease, and ‘fixes’ it, then it sets up antibodies to prevent that sickness from befalling us again. This immune response is present in different organisms as well, however in different ways. For example, Streptococcus pyogenes, a type of archaebacteria, recognizes virus DNA when it tries to infiltrate it and stores it in its own genome so it can ‘remember’ the virus and attack it next time it tries to infiltrate the cell. This information is stored between clustered short palindromic repeats located regularly throughout the bacteria’s genome, known as CRISPRs. After it stores this genetic information in its genome, the next time it recognizes the virus, a pair of DNA scissors, known as the Cas9 plasmid, is guided by gRNA to the stored portion of the virus’s DNA and ‘cuts’ its DNA. This disables the virus’s genome and stops its infiltration of the cell.
This system has been studied and harnessed for genetic engineering by programming . A professed function of the system is in the case of diabetes. Diabetes is caused by a genetic mutation which decreases the production of insulin so a person is unable to properly digest solution. The CRISPR/Cas9 system can be used to fix this mutation.
As I mentioned before, the CRISPR/Cas9 system is still very new, as it was just developed about five years ago. Therefore, while the research is still in its early stages, we are one step closer to curing genetic disease. Imagine- a future where a pill can cure cancer.
While this sounds amazing and is still a distant reality, its possibility means that we should consider what a future with the power to easily change our genes will look like. Already, for example, we have the capacity to create designer babies. While this technology right now is expensive and inaccurate, people have become intrigued in the concept which has also incited lots of controversy- who are we to change what has happened naturally. While most can agree that genetically engineering babies to avoid a terminal illness for the baby is probably important, where do we- as humans- draw the line? Is it okay to change things like maybe an allergy? How about hair color? Or intelligence level?
These are important choices that people are making right now and choices that all people will be able to make in a future- so what will they choose? While curing disease is an obvious choice that every parent would make for their child, all parents also want their children to succeed. While there is no formula for success, there are some basic characteristics, such as intelligence, confidence, and charisma, that every person will want for their kid, and genetically engineer their child to possess.
Now let’s dig a little deeper, what will a totally intelligent, charismatic, confident generation mean? Is this really a good thing, because while the human species will accelerate, intelligence-wise, competition will also increase and so will the social gap. While this technology will become more efficient, it will still be the well-off in developed countries who would be able to afford this hypothetical, easy-to-use genetic engineering technology, and the already significant gap between the lifestyles of humans will expand. Another, more philosophical question arises from this hypothetical scenario- if everyone is successful is anyone really successful?
This is a lot to think about and the outlook I presented, while largely pessimistic, may one day be a reality. What do you think the a genetically engineered future will look like? Will humans use this technology solely for good, or for their own, egotistical purposes?