Genetic engineering

Our future, or a line we must never cross?

When they see the words ‘genetic engineering’, most people have one of several reactions. Some may think of the dystopian movies, which either depict it as a horrific mistake or as an unimaginable blessing. Others may think of the slightly more realistic yet controversial practice of GMOs - organisms that have been modified to be bigger or more resilient to keep pace with the rate of our consumption. And others may worry about the possibility of genetic modification becoming a common practice in the human species.  

All of these are reasonable – genetic engineering is, in its most basic form, changing the genes of a living organism to make it better suited to its environment. And making animals bigger or growing strawberries to slightly alarming sizes in the dead of winter has become common in the supermarket. It’s possible to do, and very useful. Of course, the recurring yet very valid concerns continually resurface; antibiotic resistance, allergic reactions etc. But we have to realise that the once magical prospect of manipulating a living thing’s genes is now a reality, and a surprisingly grounded one at that.  

And of course, the next step is naturally to take genetic engineering to humans.  

As expected, this prospect has created much more controversy.  People say that to actually change the genes of a person is not right, and that only nature has the right to do that. There are countless risks involved too; unexpected effects leading to debilitating diseases, or the destruction of the human life all together. Some people even ask the question of how far humans will go. For now, gene editing has been used for survival, to keep food production going, or in some rarer cases to treat minor diseases in adults. But as technology improves rapidly, more and more possibilities emerge. All too soon we could be modifying embryos to be immune to all diseases, or even genetically modifying their looks – bigger eyes, smoother skin, thicker hair (the ‘designer babies’ phenomenon). In 2018, He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher, announced to the world that he had used CRISPR, a new gene editing technology, to edit two unborn babies illegally. They forged documents and mislead doctors in carrying out the experiment, which was meant to make the babies immune to HIV. This news was met with shock and outrage at the recklessness and irresponsibility of the experiment. In 2019, He Jiankui was sentenced to jail for three years and fined nearly $450,000.  

The argument towards genetic engineering is that nature is the most reckless, dangerous engineer of all. It leaves us with life-threatening diseases and causes many people to lead a painful and restricted life. However, we must avoid seeing genetic engineering as a miracle cure. While it may be possible one day to manipulate the genes that code for life, and save many lives and much pain and disease in the process, is incredibly dangerous and risky. Ultimately, this is something that, at this moment, we are just not ready for. 

Anika V