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CRISPR, Not your Grandpa's Biotechnology

Posted by nte on May 26, 2016 in In Action

Mariscal, C., & Petropanagos, A. (26 May 2016). CRISPR, not your grandpa's biotechnology. Paper presentation at the Canadian Bioethics Society 2016 Annual Meeting, Toronto, ON.


In 2015, Chinese researchers conducted the first human germline application of CRISPR gene-editing technology on (non-viable) human embryos. Whereas previous gene-editing techniques were laborious, inefficient, and imprecise, the CRISPR system for gene editing is easy, fast, precise, accurate, and relatively cheap. It makes gene editing more accessible than ever before. CRISPR can be used to alter the genetic material in any organism at any stage of development. It could be used on somatic cells to alter the genes in an individual organism and on germ (reproductive) cells to alter the genetic material of future generations. Some people worry that CRISPR technology could be used to control what genetic material is passed on to future generations and lead to racist, classist, or merely unwise modifications of the human germline. However, many researchers see CRISPR as a scientific breakthrough and as a potential cure for various human diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, AIDS, and sickle cell anemia. Some argue that the worries about CRISPR are unwarranted and CRISPR will eventually prove to be no more ethically problematic than other bioetechnologies such as In Vitro Fertilization or cloning (Harris Forthcoming). They maintain the existing medical, legal, and ethical frameworks are well-suited for dealing with CRISPR technology. Thus, we should not fear the CRISPR. In this paper, we argue that CRISPR is not like previous biotechnologies. First, CRISPR can introduce novel variations in germlines, making permanent biological changes to future generations. This may be uncontroversial when it comes to preventing life-threatening diseases, but all proposed modifications are inherently value-ladden. Such controlled human evolution have been suggested many times since Darwin, often with permanent, racist, and disastrous consequences. Second, CRISPR could selectively alter other traits such as skin, hair, or eye color. We could soon live in a future in which genetic traits could become commodities or fashion trends. It may even be possible for people to edit their own genomes at home. Third, CRISPR can be used in any living species, including plants and non-human animals. This has huge ecological consequences. It may be possible to drive a species to extinction or reverse the extinction of other species. The impacts of CRISPR are as far reaching as life itself. Fourth, CRISPR can also be used for military and intelligence. For example, it could be used to untraceably insert hidden messages in living tissue in order to carry information across borders. While it may be speculative to worry about such dystopian uses for biotechnology, it is no speculation that the scientific scope, possible societal consequences, and ethical import of CRISPR are not analogous to past biotechnologies. CRISPR’s scientific and ethical boundaries are largely unknown. Moreover, we advocate for improved public bioethics education concerning CRISPR gene editing technologies. There is a pressing need to engage in interprofessional and interdisciplinary discussions about the broader social and ethical implications of CRISPR. Ultimately, such discussions are necessary for the establishment of ethical guidelines for the provision of gene editing technologies.