Innovations in Biotechnology and Medical Sciences

[op-ed snap] Genetic modification goes beyond ethics


Mains Paper 3: Science & Technology | developments & their applications & effects in everyday life

From the UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: CRISPR

Mains level: Potential harms of gene editing technology and the need of an ethical framework for its regulation


Gene modification technology usage

  1. Ever since researchers at the University of Alicante in Spain came up with the revolutionary new gene-editing tool CRISPR, the chance to play god and the temptation to do it have been beckoning scientists
  2. Now, Shenzhen-based Chinese researcher He Jiankui has claimed that he had created the world’s first genetically edited babies by altering their DNA using CRISPR
  3. His claim is still unverified and, in fact, Southern University of Science and Technology, which hosts his lab, later said his work “seriously violated academic ethics and standards”

How does gene modification work?

  1. At the heart of Jiankui’s work is CRISPR (short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), the gene editing tool
  2. This tool allowed geneticists and researchers to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA sequence, much more efficiently than earlier techniques did

Consequences of this technology

  1. Tinkering with the variability of a gene pool can have disastrous consequences given that genes are connected and for one single character many of them have to work in unison
  2. There is also the issue of human germline editing
  3. The germline is the sequence of cells that develop into eggs and sperm, and any changes made in it are likely to be passed down to future generations

Scientific endeavours gone wrong

  1. The atom bomb is a great example of this
  2. What started with the simple statement that a small amount of matter could release a lot of energy built upon Niels Bohr’s atomic model morphed into the most destructive discovery mankind has ever seen
  3. That one discovery still influences our lives and society in massively negative terms
  4. In the race to create defences against nuclear weapons, arms budgets of some of the poorest nations in the world now far exceed their spends on education or health

Science has also proved to be a boon

  1. When scientists in the 1970s discovered how to fertilise human eggs in test tubes there was the apprehension that this might lead to people cherry-picking only high-quality parents for their children
  2. As it turned out those fears were unfounded and the discovery became one of the greatest boons for people who were infertile and couldn’t have children

Problems with evolution and need of gene editing

  1. Genetics is a bit of a stab in the dark and in strictly game theory terms, evolution is open-ended and, therefore, painful and wasteful
  2. It is multidirectional and not always progressive with many inadvertent mutations as a result of which we are saddled with an imperfect replication mechanism
  3. One fallout of this has been that, instead of Malthusian natural factors to keep populations balanced, we have had statist interventions that snuff out people through genocides and wars
  4. Hayekian market proponents would say the market demands genetic interventions
  5. Human civilization has always progressed by interfering with the natural evolutionary process

Way forward for India

  1. India does not have a comprehensive gene editing policy in place, though germline gene editing is banned in line with international norms
  2. Yet, in the face of persisting diseases and crippling human conditions, divine intervention may sometimes need to be supplemented with genetic ones in a carefully regulated environment
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