Health Sector – UHC, National Health Policy, Family Planning, Health Insurance, etc.

Why gene editing of babies is problematicPriority 1


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

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: CRISPR-Cas9, Gene editing

Mains level: Gene editing, its advantages and issues involved.



  • Recently a Chinese researcher created an international sensation with his claim that he had altered the genes of a human embryo that eventually resulted in the birth of twin girls.
  • If proven, it would be the first instance of human offspring having been produced with specific desired attributes, using newly-developed tools of gene “editing”.
  • In the case of the new-born Chinese babies, the genes were claimed to be “edited” to ensure that they do not get infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Gene editing

  1. Genes contain the bio-information that defines any individual.
  2. Physical attributes like height, skin or hair colour, more subtle features and even behavioral traits can be attributed to information encoded in the genetic material.
  3. An ability to alter this information gives scientists the power to control some of these features.
  4. Gene “editing” — sometimes expressed in related, but not always equivalent, terms like genetic modification, genetic manipulation or genetic engineering — is not new.
  5. It is widely practised in agriculture, to increase productivity or resistance to diseases, etc.
  6. But even in agriculture, genetic modification is a subject of major debate, especially in developing countries, including India.

CRISPR Technology

  1. CRISPR (short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) technology is a new and the most efficient, tool for gene “editing” developed in the last one decade.
  2. The technology replicates a natural defence mechanism in bacteria to fight virus attacks, using a special protein called Cas9.
  3. CRISPR-Cas9 is a simple, effective, and incredibly precise technology.

How it works?

  1. CRISPR-Cas9 technology behaves like a cut-and-paste mechanism on DNA strands that contain genetic information.
  2. The specific location of the genetic codes that need to be changed, or “edited”, is identified on the DNA strand, and then, using the Cas9 protein, which acts like a pair of scissors, that location is cut off from the strand.
  3. A DNA strand, when broken, has a natural tendency to repair itself.
  4. Scientists intervene during this auto-repair process, supplying the desired sequence of genetic codes that binds itself with the broken DNA strand.

Loopholes in Gene Editing

  1. The technology was used to solve a problem potential infection to HIV that already has alternative solutions and treatments.
  2. It was not necessary to tamper with the genetic material, which can have unintended, and as yet unknown, consequences.
  3. There is no way to verify the claims or whether the “editing” was carried out in the proper manner.
  4. The technology is extremely precise, but not 100% precise every time.
  5. There is a possibility that some other genes also get targeted. In such scenarios, unintended impacts cannot be ruled out.
  6. If regulatory approvals were obtained, then there will be data and information gaps about the experiment.

Ethical uses

  1. The most promising use of the CRISPR technology is in treatment of diseases.
  2. For example, in sickle cell anaemia, a single gene mutation makes the blood sickle-shaped.
  3. This mutation can be reversed using gene editing technology.
  4. In such cases, the genetic codes of just one individual are being changed to cure a disease.

Ethics at Stake

  1. Gene “editing” capabilities now exist with hundreds of researchers and laboratories across the world.
  2. Tampering with the genetic code in human beings is more contentious.
  3. Leading scientists in the field have for long been calling for a “global pause” on clinical applications of the technology in human beings, until internationally accepted protocols are developed.

Core of the Issue

  1. The Chinese researcher has done is to edit the genes of an embryo. Such a change would be passed on to the offspring.
  2. The aforesaid experiment has been basically making changes in the genome of the next generation.
  3. If we allow this, nothing stops people with access to CRISPR technology to produce babies with very specific traits.
  4. There is this highly problematic issue of trying to produce “designer” babies or human beings.
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