Gene Editing & CRISPR: How Far Should We Go?

– Alright, here’s a go-to sci-fi storyline that just keeps on giving. Scientist mess around with DNA
and then crazy things happen. You’ve got your classics
like Jurassic Park, and then you’ve got The Rock’s Rampage with a giant gorilla and
a flying wolf with wings. But for me, I gotta go
back to 1997 for Gattaca, where society uses genetic testing to create designer
babies with ideal genes. – I’ve taken the liberty of eradicating any potentially prejudicial conditions, premature baldness, myopia, alcoholism, and addictive susceptibility,
propensity for violence. – Late in 2018, the world of Gattaca, took a small step into the real world. A Chinese researcher revealed that he created the first
ever genetically edited babies. He altered the DNA of the twin
girls before they were born in what he says was an attempt to make them biologically
resistant to HIV and AIDS. In response, the world went kind of nuts, raising a huge bioethical question: When is gene editing okay? How far is too far when
altering life itself? We can’t talk about gene editing without first talking about genes. Which are kind of like
the instructions for life. All living things have them. They determine most of your physical traits like the color of your eyes, whether your hair is curly or straight, the density of your bones, even how your heart responds to exercise. For thousands of years, humans have been unknowingly exploiting this in plants and animals
through selective breeding. Every time a farmer decides to plant seeds from the biggest, juiciest tomatoes, in order to get bigger, juicier tomatoes, they were indirectly influencing genes. Selective breeding is why we have hundreds of
different breeds of dogs. I mean, come on,
Chihuahuas and Great Dane’s are both the same species. Now that’s crazy, that’s
a super wide spectrum. Selective breeding
works but it’s imprecise and it takes generations
before you see results. What if instead you
could directly manipulate individual genes. That’s exactly what gene editing does. The technology has been
around for a couple decades but it’s only been in the
last five or six years that gene editing has really taken off. That’s because of CRISPR, one of the biggest scientific
breakthroughs in decades. It’s a gene editing tool that
can target specific genes, allowing scientists to make precise edits much like a software
engineer modifies code. They can cut out a gene;
they can modify a gene; they can add an entirely new gene. If you want to learn more about it, our friends at It’s Okay to be Smart did a great video and you
should definitely check it out. Now, every week there’s news
of another CRISPR breakthrough. One company is trying to turn pigs into organ donors for humans using CRISPR so that the human body
doesn’t reject foreign tissue. A team of researchers in
Texas used it on puppies with a disease that
causes severe muscle loss. CRISPR essentially
reversed the muscle loss, creating some pretty jacked beagles. There are even scientists using CRISPR to add genes from the
long-extinct wooly mammoth into its closest living
relative, the Asian elephant. They’re basically trying to create a wooly mammoth, elephant hybrid that might be able to better
tolerate climate change. Now that’s some pretty
Jurassic Park-level science if you ask me. But just because CRISPR might be able to do all this stuff one day, does that mean we should? If CRISPR delivers even a fraction of what we’ve been promised, it could be a game changer
in how we fight diseases. Take sickle cell disease, for example, where there aren’t enough
healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. It affects about 100,000 Americans and it’s caused by a mutation in one gene among the roughly 20,000 found in humans. In fact, there are over
10,000 human disorders that are caused by single-gene mutations. What if CRISPR could cure all of them simply by fixing the mutation? CRISPR could also help
prevent infectious diseases. Researches have been able to disrupt the reproductive
cycle of mosquitoes- meaning they die off and
can’t transmit malaria, Zika and other deadly viruses that kill hundreds of thousands of people, many of them children,
worldwide every year. If you wanna learn more about that, we did an episode on it and
you should check it out. But things get really interesting when you think about how gene editing could affect multiple
generations of humans. See, up until now, gene editing in humans has almost always been restricted to altering the genes in somatic cells. Which are the cells in the body that are not involved in reproduction. So any changes to DNA stay in that person, they can’t be passed on. The Chinese researcher who
gene edited those twins, did something different. He did his “CRISPRing” when
the twins were still embryos, meaning the reproductive
cells were altered. So, any changes can be passed
down to future offspring. Now, that could be great. If the researcher was successful in introducing a biological
resistance to HIV and AIDS, then maybe we could one day get to a place where we could cure
disease in one generation and it disappears for
all future generations. Now as an astute Above the Noise viewer, you’re probably thinking
what I’m thinking right now. All of this sounds too good to be true. What’s the catch? Well, while CRISPR is a
relatively simple tool, the effects of altering
genes might not be. Scientists have recently learned that CRISPR has the potential to wipe out or rearrange large chunks of DNA, which could do anything from
turning off the wrong genes to triggering some forms of cancer. Also, who decides what’s
considered a problem that needs to be fixed? Sure, most of us might be fine with eliminating some diseases, but what about things like
deafness or dwarfism or ADD? Many people in those communities see their differences as positive and adding the human diversity, not as a problem that
needs to be eradicated. And even if scientists
can perfect gene editing, which is a big if, a Gattaca-style designer baby scenario isn’t hard to imagine. The rich and powerful can
shell out the big bucks to customize their kids, protecting them from a bunch of diseases, reducing their risk for
anxiety and depression, and maybe even giving them
a heightened IQ boost. Meanwhile, the rest of us
might only be able to afford a more limited amount
of gene changes, if any. But what do you all think? When is gene editing okay? When should we use it? And when should we not? Let us know in the comments below. If you’re a middle or
a high school teacher, you can get your students
talking about this topic on KQED Learn which should be in this general area somewhere. And if you’re a student,
find out what other students from around the country
are saying about the topic. Thanks for watching. I’m Myles Bess, and as always, we’ll
see you next time, guys. Peace out!


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