An Enzyme Away from X-Men Mutants
“I’m not worried…” says Jennifer Doudna, the woman who has cracked gene editing, “I’m excited.” I cannot help wondering whether Robert Oppenheimer said the same thing about the atomic bomb.
Perhaps we have, as a society, grown accustomed to the idea of genetic modification. Very few of us seem to notice or mind whether our food is labelled with GM ingredients. Fewer still, campaign for more thorough tests of potential long term effects on our bodies or the environment. Have the many science fiction horror stories of gene spliced winged serpents rendered us indifferent to the consequences of tampering with evolution?
At Yale, Doudna and her team, worked out the structure of a vital protein that is guided by a messenger chemical inside our cells. By 2012, Doudna’s new team, at the University of California, used this protein, the CRISPR Cas9 enzyme, to snip a section of DNA and replace it with another. In 2015, the first monkey with edited genes was born.
Since then, Doudna has published a book on CRISPR, opening the ethics debate surrounding this subject worldwide. Of course, we can see the enormous advantages of editing out hereditary diseases, or wiping out strains of mosquitoes that transmit malaria, but at what expense? The slow plod of evolution has its own built in, natural, quality control system. Artificially meddling with a structure as delicate as DNA is asking for trouble, particularly since there is still so much to learn about our genome.
Even if developed countries can legislate effective and ethical regulations with regard to gene editing, what’s to stop unethical practices and dangerous experiments elsewhere in the world? The idea of switching off the activity of harmful genes, seems to me, acceptable practice, but to cut out entire chunks of DNA in order to splice in another prior to conception, is foolhardy. Altering the genetic makeup of cells in vivo, could potentially begin a chain reaction of unwanted cellular growth akin to tumours.
Are we looking at a future of temperamental superhumans, fed on pigs genetically altered to be fat free and seven feet tall? Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein only missed its mark by an order of scale. According to an article in the Financial Times this week, CRISPR is ready for testing in humans. Time will tell whether they find a cure for blindness or pave the way for X-Men style mutants.
Sam Nash is the author of the FREE prequel sci-fi conspiracy thriller novella series, The Aurora Journals – Now available here: https://www.samnash.org. The Aurora Conspiracies Series will be available soon. Release date TBA. You can find her at Facebook.com/samnash.author or on Twitter @samnashauthor .