Just years ago, the idea of designing babies or other organisms was one only imagined in the most far-fetched of sci-fi movies. But today, designing organisms is not a fantasy (Or a nightmare?) but something that we have the technology to do.
CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-Cas9 is a gene editing technology that scientists have developed and explored in recent years. This technology utilizes the defense techniques employed by archaea and bacteria to edit DNA. Guide RNA, which is a molecule that can interpret the genetic information of DNA, brings the Cas9 protein to a certain area of DNA where the protein attaches to the double helix and unzips it. The RNA is then able to pair up with a region of DNA based on the matching of nucleotides. The Cas9 protein cuts the DNA at this spot. At this point, scientists are able to use the DNA’s repair mechanisms to repair damaged genes or alter genes through introducing new nucleotide sequences.
This process has been in development for less than a decade, but already, its potentials are expansive. First of all, it is a technique that can be used by scientists to determine the roles of certain genes. By deleting parts of gene sequences, scientists can see the effect of these sequences on an organism. This is only the beginning of the magic of CRISPR. It can also be used to create more nutritious produce and potent antibiotics and antivirals, to edit the human genome to stop genetic diseases, and to modify entire species (by ensuring that certain genes are passed on from generation to generation). And, perhaps most intriguing of all, it can be used to create designer babies.
The term designer babies peaks the interest of many. Creating designer babies is not something that scientists can safely do right now, or can confidently say they will be able to safely do in the future. However, there is a significant chance that one day, we will be able to modify the human genome to design children who are more athletic, more intelligent, or do not have a certain disease. But this raises an important question: should we?
The potential ability to use CRISPR to select for certain characteristics in humans is ethically concerning to many. Will this technology further discrimination in society if it becomes a form of eugenics? Will it further class divides by granting parents with more economic means the ability to create a child with desirable traits? Will it put children who are not genetically modified at a disadvantage if the standard of “normal” changes in society?
Or, will it create more children who get to live longer, healthier lives without the risk of certain genetic diseases? Will it create a more intelligent society of individuals that contribute to the future of science and technology?
These questions are only the beginning of the ethical dilemma raised by CRISPR, and also introduce a conflict between CRISPR’s connection with different SDGs. CRISPR supports SDG 9, which promotes innovation, and SDG 3, which promotes good health and wellbeing. However, CRISPR has the potential to hinder the goal of SDG 10, which aims to reduce inequalities. Thus, we must ask ourselves the difficult question of what costs we are willing to pay for the potential benefits that CRISPR may provide. This is a question we must continue to grapple with as the technology develops and expands, and one that may only be answered in full if/when CRISPR technology is utilized to design babies.