1 April 2019
A Dystopian Future on the Horizon
The human race has always been obsessed with the idea of perfection, especially in regards to perfecting the human race itself. This fascination with improving the human race can be traced as far back as ancient Greece in which philosophers such as Plato wrote about social measures to improve the quality of future generations (Galton and Galton, 1998). Carrying on throughout the centuries, the idea of the perfection of DNA influenced future scientists to develop technologies with the capability to edit genomes.
Some of these advancements include the creation of technologies such as CRISPR-CAS9 and TALENs. Unfortunately, the idea of perfect DNA still lingers in some scientists minds, and the possibility of these technologies being used to perfect the DNA looms. Though many ethical misuses of CRISPR-CAS9 and TALENs are possible, one must not ignore all the future benefits of the advancements in these genome editing technologies.
History of Eugenics through Evolutionary Theories
As discussed in Charles Darwin written by Adrian Desmond, in 1837, English scientist Charles Darwin set out on the HMS Beagle to study a variety of fauna as well as fossils within the rainforests and seas of South America (Desmond, 2019).
In South America, Darwin found Pampas fossils, large fossils of the ancestors of South American mammals. Darwin brought many fossils back with him, and when he returned to England in 1839, he examined them further. Through Darwins study and comparison of various Pampas fossils to the current fauna, he noted that their sizes and builds differed from from the current fauna of the environment. From this study, Darwin coined the term law of succession which he attributed to the noted change in the species overtime. Yet, Darwin still did not understand what caused the law of succession to occur within animal populations. Later, John Gould, an ornithologist, found that the Galapagos finches were not mixes of different breeds of birds, but seemed to have mutated from one breed of finches. Hearing this, Darwin started to speculate about the possible causes of this phenomenon, developing the term transmutation. As Western naturalist society was deeply religious at the time, they did not accept his relatively radical beliefs, even accusing him of heresy. Though, in the 1850s, England became more accepting of unorthodox scientific ideas as it shifted from a religious constitutional monarchy to a meritocracy, a society governed by individuals chosen by their intellectual merit. Darwin began to refine his research and finally discovered the cause of what seemed to be genetic mutations found within species. However, the birth of his child, Charles, shifted some of his previous views as the child was developmentally disabled. One cannot be entirely sure of Charless disability, but coupled with fact that Charles Darwin and his wife Emma were first cousins and Emma birthed Charles at the age of 48, many suggest that Charles most likely had down syndrome. Darwin previously thought that only a change in the surrounding environment would spark changes in offspring but noted that a variety of factors could affect the offspring, making each more unique (Desmond, 2019). Fearful of the response his work would receive while also struggling with severe anxiety, Darwin did not publish Origin of Species, his book on the theory of transmutation or evolution, until 1859 (Galton and Galton, 1998). In his book, Darwin proposed the idea of natural selection along with the theory of evolution. He stated that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind[.] On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed (Darwin, 1859). The survival and the procreation of the ones who adapted to the changing environment over the ones who did not was Darwins theory of natural selection. He believed natural selection ultimately led to the evolution of a species.
Eugenics, defined as the science of improving the human genome, has a far lengthier history than that of the theory of evolution (Galton and Galton, 1998). It can be traced as far back as ancient Greece, specifically to Greek philosopher, Plato (Galton and Galton, 1998). In Platos The Republic and The Laws, he suggests methods to genetically improve the future generations through social sterilization (Galton and Galton, 1998). This concept of perfecting the offspring of the population carried into future centuries, often carrying racial, ethnic, and ableist bias.
Francis Galton was a respected English scientist, most famous for being the founder of modern quantitative genetics and creator of the term eugenics (Galton and Galton, 1998). Though Galton is often only recognized for his work in regards to eugenics, he ventured into other scientific fields as well including the exploration, geographical, and statistical fields (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019). He contributed to the exploration and geographical fields through his expedition to Botswana in search of an opening in the Ngami River. Galton never made it to the Ngami River, but he was able to study and learn more about the region and people of the region. After this expedition, the Royal Geographical Society inducted him in as a fellow. Galton also conducted a lot of statistical research, including measuring the effectiveness of prayer, as he favored the quantitative aspects of science. Galtons interest in the statistical field as well as his racist and ableist beliefs deeply affected his work regarding eugenics.
Galton believed that physical as well as intellectual traits were hereditary. Specifically, Galton believed that whites were a race superior to persons of color. He used his racist and ableist beliefs to advance eugenics, drawing inspiration from Darwins previous studies on natural selection (Galton and Galton, 1998). Galton took Darwins idea of natural selection several steps forward, suggesting that humans had the right to advance natural selection through artificial means (Galton and Galton, 1998). He proposed assigning inheritable characteristics quantifiable worth as well as keeping records of the parents’ job and familial history (Galton and Galton, 1998). Galton believed this would provide a guaranteed way to promote the best characteristics in future generations. Galton believe those with poor genetic quality, such as low intellect, should be sterilized. He believed those with high genetic quality, should produce offspring among each other (The Contributors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019). Galtons ideas ultimately contributed to forced sterilizations administered around the world (Galton and Galton, 1998). For example, especially in the United States between 1931 and 1945 (Galton and Galton, 1998). His ideas were also used by the Nazi party as scientific basis to administer forced sterilizations. The Nazis also used the ideas of natural natural selection and eugenics to justify their genocide against those deemed inferior from between 1933 and 1945 (Galton and Galton, 1998).
Modern Genome Editing Technologies: CRISPR/ CAS9 + TALENs
As science developed further, many of Galtons ideas on the heritability of intelligence and eugenics were disputed due to their racist and ableist undertones. Furthermore, as scientific technologies developed, technologies such as CRISPR/CAS9 and TALENs were also developed. CRISPR/CAS9 are modern genome editing technologies which utilize target sequences to edit DNA (Hatada and Horii, 2017). Through the use of target sequences, CRISPR is able to control gene expression and insert and delete genes (Plumer, Barclay, Belluz, et al, 2018). The method [CRISPR/CAS9] requires only Cas9 ) nuclease and a short RNA, called single-guide RNA (gRNA or sgRNA) (Hatada and Horii, 2017). As they have genome editing capabilities, their possible uses are fairly extensive which arouses a lot of skepticism. As CRISPR/CAS9 are fairly new technologies their uses are still be tested.
Though a concern of CRISPR/CAS9, is the relative lack of information about the technologies as they fairly new. For example, finding the exact target sequence of the proteins is crucial if one does not want off-target mutations (Hatada and Horii, 2017). If off-target mutations occur, it can result in various frameshifts, affecting the process of RNA transcription and translation. Yet, much is not understood about the stringency of target sequence recognition by the Cas-sgRNA complex, so mutations can happen often (Hatada and Horii, 2017). In regards to accuracy, TALENs is better as while CRISPR-Cas9 can target DNA sequences with only a 70% probability of success given a random stretch of DNA sequence, while TALENs technology can, in theory, edit any portion of the genome (Sammy, 2017). This is a greater problem as scientists often use CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) /CAS9 technologies as it is comparatively easier to use, relatively cheaper compared to previous technologies such as TALENs, and has a wide range of possible uses (Hatada and Horii, 2017). CRISPR/CAS9 are simpler to use compared to previous genome editing technologies due to less needed effort in the designing of proteins (Hatada and Horii, 2017).
Benefits of Advancements in Genome Editing: Tested and Tentative
Plants are most often killed by viruses which makes them the the main cause of lower crop yields (Liu, Soyars, Li, et al, 2018). Scientists have used genome editing to develop resistance genes (R gene) , so plants become immune to viruses (Liu et al, 2018). Scientists have accomplished creating viral immunity in plants through genome editing technologies such as CRISPR and CAS9 (Liu, Soyars, Li, et al, 2018). This use of CRISPR/CAS9 will hopefully lead to a greater yield of crops, greatly benefiting farmers. However, though these technologies can benefit farmers, there still stands the issue of the publics acceptance of genetically modified produce.
As genome editing technologies have only recently been tested on humans and lack advancements in the targeting specificity aspects, their future use with humans is uncertain (Sammy, 2017). Though, it is predicted that a future use of genome editing will be to treat diseases within humans. The process is referred to as gene therapy (NHGRI, 2017). Gene therapy is when one replaces a mutated gene with a healthy gene copy (National Institutes of Health, n.d.). Scientists think that genome editing technology could be used to cure the diseases that are passed through genetic mutations (Sammy, 2017).
Future Issues Regarding Advancements in Genome Editing
Though genome editing poses many positive advancements for the future, there are many possible issues and misuses as well, especially in regards to ethics.
A future misuse of genome editing is in the arena of biological warfare. For example, it can be used to make weeds resistant to weed killers and pesticides. Enemy states can then send them to another country, leaving no way to exterminate the invasive species.
Another concern in regards to genome editing is in regards to it being used on humans through germline editing (NHGRI, 2017). Many worry that the genetic edits made within the parents germline could become hereditary, affecting future generations (NHGRI, 2017). For one, mistakes can be made in the process of genome editing due to the possibility of off-target effects (edits in the wrong place) and mosaicism (when some cells carry the edit but others do not) (NHGRI, 2017). So, genetic mutations could be passed down generation to generation. As a result, many scientists do not agree genetic editing in terms of reproduction is safe (NHGRI, 2017). In regards to ethics, many find germline editing unethical as the affected parties (future generations) do not have consent in the process (NHGRI, 2017). Also, some fear genome editing and gene therapy might be used to genetically improve future generations, in regards to non-health issues (NHGRI, 2017).
Though these technologies such as CRISPR/CAS9 are mainly being tested on plant health and eradicating subsequent viruses, these technologies could have a wide range of possible uses. They could potentially be used to advance eugenist agendas, descending us into a generation of artificial selection. Though, these technologies could mean breakthroughs in the disease treatment field of science. As every technological advancement, one must tread carefully as to not upset the thin balance between science and ethics.