Gene editing and Designer ‘CRISPR’ babies

Gene editing or genome editing is the technique used to replace or cutting pieces of DNA [Ref]. Using a component known as  CRISPR to precisely pinpoint the sequence of DNA in the gene, an enzyme called Cas9 is used to cut through the part identified. It can also replace a removed part by another sequence of DNA. This technique can be used to replace a faculty gene or change a gene to make it behave differently. Gene editing can have very good effects like altering a disease gene or modifying a diseased gene to behave normally. However gene editing can also produce some questionable effects such as altering a physical function or a characteristic – e.g. eye colour gene can be altered to produce blue eyes and this can make the way for designer  babies.

Gene-edited humans would one day be born but the scientific world was not prepared as there was a number of issues to be fully investigated and ethical issues deliberated.

He Jiankui, a scientist from China, had secretly launched the first attempt to create children with edited genes. He edited human embryos using CRISPR to remove a single gene. He claimed that twin girls—named Lula and Lala—had been born and that they would be immune to HIV because of how he’d altered their genomes.

Changing the genes in an embryo means changing genes in every cell. If the method succeeds, the baby will have alterations that will be inherited by all of the child’s progeny. And that, scientists agree, is a serious undertaking that must be done with great deliberation and only to treat a serious disease for which there are no other options — if it is to be done at all [Ref]

What Jiankui did was to disable a perfectly normal gene, CCR₅. While people who are born with both copies of CCR₅ disabled are resistant to H.I.V., they are more susceptible to West Nile virus and Japanese encephalitis. More worrying, Crispr often inadvertently alters genes other than the one being targeted, and there are also circumstances, called mosaicism, where some cells contain the edited gene and others do not.

“Should such epic scientific misadventures proceed, a technology with enormous promise for prevention and treatment of disease will be overshadowed by justifiable public outrage, fear, and disgust,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

Some worry that this is the first step toward using gene editing to create people with extreme intelligence, beauty or athletic ability. But that, for now, is not possible. Such traits are thought to be affected by possibly hundreds of genes acting in concert, and affected in turn by the environment. The biggest ethical concerns for now are with rogue scientists enticing couples who do not realize the risks to babies that might result from the experiments. And when those children grow up, the altered genes will be passed on to their children, and to their children’s children, for generations to come.

The promise and perils of synthetic biology – Economist (Unedited)

To understand them well, look to the past [Ref]. For the past four billion years or so the only way for life on Earth to produce a sequence of dna—a gene—was by copying a sequence it already had to hand. Sometimes the gene would be damaged or scrambled, the copying imperfect or undertaken repeatedly. From that raw material arose the glories of natural selection. But beneath it all, gene begat gene.

That is no longer true. Now genes can be written from scratch and edited repeatedly, like text in a word processor. The ability to engineer living things which this provides represents a fundamental change in the way humans interact with the planet’s life. It permits the manufacture of all manner of things which used to be hard, even impossible, to make: pharmaceuticals, fuels, fabrics, foods and fragrances can all be built molecule by molecule. What cells do and what they can become is engineerable, too. Immune cells can be told to follow doctors’ orders; stem cells better coaxed to turn into new tissues; fertilised eggs programmed to grow into creatures quite unlike their parents.

The earliest stages of such “synthetic biology” are already changing many industrial processes, transforming medicine and beginning to reach into the consumer world (see Technology Quarterly). Progress may be slow, but with the help of new tools and a big dollop of machine learning, biological manufacturing could eventually yield truly cornucopian technologies. Buildings may be grown from synthetic wood or coral. Mammoths produced from engineered elephant cells may yet stride across Siberia.

The scale of the potential changes seems hard to imagine. But look back through history, and humanity’s relations with the living world have seen three great transformations: the exploitation of fossil fuels, the globalisation of the world’s ecosystems after the European conquest of the Americas, and the domestication of crops and animals at the dawn of agriculture. All brought prosperity and progress, but with damaging side-effects. Synthetic biology promises similar transformation. To harness the promise and minimise the peril, it pays to learn the lessons of the past.

The new biology calls all in doubt

Start with the most recent of these previous shifts. Fossil fuels have enabled humans to drive remarkable economic expansion in the present using biological productivity from ages past, stored away in coal and oil. But much wilderness has been lost, and carbon atoms which last saw the atmosphere hundreds of millions of years ago have strengthened the planet’s greenhouse effect to a degree that may prove catastrophic. Here, synthetic biology can do good. It is already being used to replace some products made from petrochemicals; in time it could replace some fuels, too. This week Burger King introduced into some of its restaurants a beefless Whopper that gets its meatiness from an engineered plant protein; such innovations could greatly ease a shift to less environmentally taxing diets. They could also be used to do more with less. Plants and their soil microbes could produce their own fertilisers and pesticides, ruminants less greenhouse gas—though to ensure that synthetic biology yields such laudable environmental goals will take public policy as well as the cues of the market.

The second example of biological change sweeping the world is the Columbian exchange, in which the 16th century’s newly global network of trade shuffled together the creatures of the New World and the Old. Horses, cattle and cotton were introduced to the Americas; maize, potatoes, chilli and tobacco to Europe, Africa and Asia. The ecosystems in which humans live became globalised as never before, providing more productive agriculture all round, richer diets for many. But there were also disastrous consequences. Measles, smallpox and other pathogens ran through the New World like a forest fire, claiming tens of millions of lives. The Europeans weaponised this catastrophe, conquering lands depleted and disordered by disease.

Synthetic biology could create such weapons by design: pathogens designed to weaken, to incapacitate or to kill, and perhaps also to limit themselves to particular types of target. There is real cause for concern here—but not for immediate alarm. For such weaponisation would, like the rest of cutting-edge synthetic biology, take highly skilled teams with significant resources. And armies already have lots of ways to flatten cities and kill people in large numbers. When it comes to mass destruction, a disease is a poor substitute for a nuke. What’s more, today’s synthetic-biology community lives up to ideals of openness and public service better than many older fields. Maintained and nurtured, that culture should serve as a powerful immune system against rogue elements.

The earliest biological transformation—domestication—produced what was hitherto the biggest change in how humans lived their lives. Haphazardly, then purposefully, humans bred cereals to be more bountiful, livestock to be more docile, dogs more obedient and cats more companionable (the last a partial success, at best). This allowed new densities of settlement and new forms of social organisation: the market, the city, the state. Humans domesticated themselves as well as their crops and animals, creating space for the drudgery of subsistence agriculture and oppressive political hierarchies.

Synthetic biology will have a similar cascading effect, transforming humans’ relationships with each other and, potentially, their own biological nature. The ability to reprogram the embryo is, rightly, the site of most of today’s ethical concerns. In future, they may extend further; what should one make of people with the upper-body strength of gorillas, or minds impervious to sorrow? How humans may choose to change themselves biologically is hard to say; that some choices will be controversial is not.

Which leads to the main way in which this transformation differs from the three that came before. Their significance was discovered only in retrospect. This time, there will be foresight. It will not be perfect: there will certainly be unanticipated effects. But synthetic biology will be driven by the pursuit of goals, both anticipated and desired. It will challenge the human capacity for wisdom and foresight. It might defeat it. But carefully nurtured, it might also help expand it.This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline”Redesigning life”

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