In 2006, it cost around £20 million to sequence a human’s genome, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. Today this figure has dropped to less than £1000. We can link this drastic decrease with both the tremendous improvements in software and computers, and the ground breaking discoveries made in the realm of genetics.
Having the ability to sequence genomes at such low prices means that the technology can be exposed to the public at an affordable price, and, sure enough, companies such as Ancestry, 23andMe or DNAfit have done just that. For as little as £100 pounds, these companies can sequence parts of your genome and reveal all kinds of facts about yourself, such as your ancestral background, your likelihood of certain diseases or even your ideal diet and workout plan, all according to your genes.
In the world of medicine, the advancements in genetics has been even more crucial and ground breaking. Today, scientists have the ability to manipulate many strains DNA in whichever way they wish, thanks to a biotechnology known as CRISPR-Cas9. Originally found in bacteria as a defence mechanism against viruses, CRISPR was reprogrammed by scientists, giving it the ability to carefully and accurately cut out and replace any sequence of DNA desired. It therefore has the ability to alter any trait or character in any species we want. From curing diseases, to changing our eye colour, to making fish glow in the dark, we have the ability to do it all.
This technology is so powerful that it has the potential to eradicate any genetic disease that has plagued humans for millennia, such as Huntington’s disease, sickle cell disease or cystic fibrosis, which kill millions of people worldwide. It can also help in curing other horrible diseases such as cancers or malaria either directly or indirectly.
For cancer, for example, altering the expression of certain genes which allow the cells to stay ‘immortal’ could be be a solution. Whereas for malaria, scientists are currently testing, in a contained environment, genetically engineered mosquitos which can repress the spread of malaria. If the trial tests are successful, they hope to release these mosquitos into malaria ravaged regions in the world and have them mate with malaria carrying mosquitos in order to transfer the immunity to all future generations of mosquitos. The fact that sequencing is so cheap today, and will only get cheaper as the technology improves, means that these treatments may be easily available and accessible to most of the public.
Although the technology does sound perfect, there are some concerns that can be brought up. Naturally, changing the code of life in a species, giving it traits that will be passed down to future generations can bring up some ethical issues.
One of the biggest concerns with genetic engineering in humans is the issue of designer babies. Potentially, in the near future, we may have the ability to choose different traits in our babies before they are even born. For example a parent could choose their baby’s eye or hair colour or even their height. Many fear that this will lead to a rise of a ‘superior’ race where non genetically modified humans will be frowned upon. Other people fear that this choice will lead to the conversion of humanity into a ‘robot’ species, with a loss in diversity and uniqueness.
The issue of regulating the technology is another concern. Dictatorships with no concern of ethics or morality could use the technology to develop ‘supersoldiers’ whose sole purpose is to fight. A famous example of the dismissal of regulations is the recent case of a Chinese doctor who altered the DNA of some twins in order to protect them from HIV later in their lives. Although the scientist did have good intentions, he still did not have any authorisation from the Chinese government. This is particularly concerning, as not everyone who has access to this technology may have the same intentions in mind.
However, with all this being said, the age of genetic engineering is inevitable with FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) approved trials approaching soon. I’m sure most people won’t oppose the use of the technology in order to save lives and cure diseases, but rather oppose the abuse and unnecessary use of genetic modification. Therefore it isn’t a question of if we should use the technology, it’s a question of how we should use it.
It is important for us to open a dialogue on the issue to draw the ethical line between where we should and shouldn’t venture with the ability to modify the code of life. It is important for us to set up a strong enough infrastructure for the new era of medicine ahead of us. This is possibly the biggest leap in biology Humanity has ever taken.