By Marc Beuttler
In 1859 Charles Darwin set down his theory of evolution, an idea that revolutionized and continues to challenge science and philosophy. Along the way we adopted and refined Mendel’s genetic studies on pea plants to explain the inheritance of genes in Darwin’s model of natural selection, and a little over 60 years ago, Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA. With that knowledge, we first sequenced every A, T, C, and G in our bodies about a decade ago, and today, researchers not only understand and model evolutionary biology and genetic patterns in populations, but can now influence that evolution by rewriting – adding and subtracting – the very genes that make up an organism’s DNA.
This in itself is not so new. We have all heard of Monsanto and genetically modified organisms. But today we stand at the brink of a new scientific tool that will make all the progress of the last 200 years seem like “child’s play”. Soon, scientists will not only be able to modify organisms themselves, but to also influence heritable traits. This means that we can now modify the present and the future. Every subsequent generation will inherit genes of our choosing, effectively beating evolution’s game by stacking the odds in favor of the genes we choose in the organism of our choosing.
This is done through so-called “selfish genes”, genes that drive a gene through a population above the normal rates of inheritance. This is accomplished by a process that uses the power of endonucleases: genetic scissors that cut DNA at a specific place and fills the gap between the two strands of DNA with a specific gene, one of scientists’ choosing.
Scientists first began down the road of this technology seeking to wipe out malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Malaria affects 220,000 people a year and is involved in a vicious cycle of poverty, especially in Africa. Engineering mosquitoes so that they not only stop carrying malaria in this generation, but in every subsequent generation, effectively stops malaria altogether. Because mosquitoes multiply so quickly, this feat could be accomplished in 5 years.
But the uses for these new genetic manipulation techniques go far beyond mosquitoes. This technology provides us with the tools to write-out disease, to change even our own genetics, and to change the traits inherited by our children. This is a genetic engineering project of potentially massive scale. And it is one that does not just affect the present, but the future.
Aware of this, the scientists who developed this technique have gathered many thinkers to discuss the ramifications and important ethical and legal framework to consider before taking steps to further develop this new realm of science that combines genetic engineering, molecular genetics, and population genetics.
Arthur Caplan of NYU proposes 3 ethical criteria to begin with: 1) only use this technology to wipe out harmful species with no special niche (like malaria-carrying mosquitoes), 2) use computer models before implementation, and 3) Continued transparency in research. Though the ethical and scientific hurtles are large, the potential gained with this new breed of genetic engineering is truly impressive. On a planet with 7 billion people, massive environmental and health problems, and limited resources, this technology could quite literally rewrite the world.
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