On the 1st of June 2017, the gene-editing molecular hardware of CRISPR was used for the first time on a human patient. This was a massive breakthrough for the theoretical and practical study of human genetics, but it also raises difficult ethical questions. How far can we take human gene editing?

Before delving into that, let’s first talk about what CRISPR is, and what it can do. CRISPR is a feature of bacterial immune systems, where their surprisingly sophisticated machinery can recognize invading viral DNA and cut it up into pieces. After it’s discovery, people began attempting to use the enzymes involved in the CRISPR or Cas (CRISPR associated system) to edit fractions of genetic information in a variety of organisms. Then it all exploded when the realisation came that this method could efficiently edit human genes like never before. No previous gene-editing technique was able to target multiple locations at once so easily. Additionally, human DNA is tightly packed around protein octamers and is difficult to access, but because the molecular scissors of CRISPR are small in size it enables them to reach spots inaccessible before without a more complex method. Molecular biologists are rejoicing over this panacea to all genetic ailments, the world of medicine is on the verge of a new era. But there’s one slight problem.

In the ethics department, we haven’t really caught up with rapid growth of CRISPR technology. Which means that when we eventually develop the perfect Cas9 (a protein that can edit a gene) there’ll be much controversy on what we can and can’t change. Naturally, there should be no problem ‘fixing’ genes that only cause debilitating diseases, alone. However, there is also the genuine fear of ‘designer babies’. It is theoretically possible for parents to tailor an embryo’s physical appearance. While the technology is still in its early stages, many people – scientists and the general public alike – fear a reality where the rich can afford exotic gene therapies. These therapies would allow the already privileged to have much more successful offspring, with perfect genetics, creating a divide wider than any class system today. With the simplicity of the Cas9 complex, the rapid pace of human genome sequencing and analysis is developing, this isn’t a distant dystopia.

Selective breeding has been used by humans on both livestock and crops for millennia, far longer than any gene machinery we use today. But this machinery makes the editing of genetics quicker and easier than ever, is this a future people want? Disease prevention is one thing, but engineering the appearance and abilities of our own children is a different matter entirely. One that needs careful consideration, and regulation.

Ryan Henne – Science Writer