Updated: Jun 19, 2021
Author: Jiahao Wu
Editors: Shannon Tan
Artists: Cici Zhang
Is it possible to alter human features down to the molecular molecules that compose us? The first gene-editing technologies were first introduced in the 1900s and a recent development called CRISPR in 2009 has allowed easier DNA modification.
However, there are moral and ethical issues that arise within this topic of research. Although altering physical traits can harm us, or even lower disease risks, the experience of horror films consisting of human experiments and immoral acts are in the back of everyone's mind. The National Human Genome Research Institute proposed a series of ethical concerns over this process which include the following:
Is it acceptable to use gene therapy on an embryo when it is impossible to get permission from the embryo for treatment? Is getting permission from the parents enough?
What if gene therapies are too expensive and only wealthy people can access and afford them? This could worsen existing health inequalities between the rich and poor.
Will some people use genome editing for traits not important for health, such as athletic ability or height? Is that acceptable?
Should scientists ever be able to edit germline cells? Edits in the germline would be passed down through generations.
In 2018, the birth of twin girls raised a storm of controversy because they were the world’s first gene-edited babies. Scientist He Jiankui illegally performed human experiments on embryos. Although his claim to these modifications were for the good, trying to protect the children from HIV, he was jailed for three years and fined for a large amount of money. The discovery of his experiment caused international backlash to the point where he was fired from his professor position. Meanwhile, waves of concern over ethical issues regarding this and similar technology were raised. With awareness about the potential consequences of gene-editing, both the educational circle and the public are more cautious of similar experiments.
“China Jails 'Gene-Edited Babies' Scientist for Three Years.” BBC News. BBC, December 30,
Kennedy, Merrit. “Chinese Researcher Who Created Gene-Edited Babies Sentenced To 3
Years In Prison,” December 30, 2019.
“What Is Genome Editing?” Genome.gov. Accessed December 2, 2020.