The issue of human genome editing has recently been brought to our attention due to a researcher in China announcing that he had edited the genes of two babies, which would be the first time this occurred successfully.
Genome editing, in this case, was accomplished using a process called CRISPR. In it, part of a gene is cut out, and sometimes a different DNA sequence is inserted to replace it, changing the gene.
Discovered in 2013, this procedure has vast potential for genetically modifying plants and animals. And it can be used to modify humans as well. Research and experiments on human cells in laboratories have shown the potential to remove mutations associated with cancer, or certain genes that cause genetic disorders.
While the ethical issues involving the genetic engineering and modification of humans are complex, their becoming widespread would create interesting legal and societal implications.
What is often most feared about genetic modification and engineering is that it will extend beyond fixing and replacing defective genes, and develop into the practice of altering genes in order to select traits deemed desirable, like intelligence, or a particular hair or eye color.
And although this does have potential, imagine society if it had thousands of people with the intelligence of Albert Einstein, its prevalence would inevitably result in changes in many policies.
Some of these changes have been foreshadowed in cases involving animals: the cloning of which is legal, and has been for some time. For example, the U.S. Jockey Club, with which horses are required to register to participate in races in North America, prohibits the cloning of horses. But cloned horses are still in high demand.
In 2013, the horse team that won a prestigious polo tournament in Argentina was comprised of six cloned horses. Since all of the horses were clones from the same champion horse, this gave the team a tremendous advantage. Previously, top horses were bred to produce horses intended to have a genetic advantage. But why bother when they can be cloned, and guaranteed to be an almost identical copy of a champion?
If this type of genetic modification in humans became widespread, we would most likely see similar regulations designed to level the playing field, along with many others.
Like anything else, genome editing has its downsides along with its benefits and incredible potential. As such, it remains a highly controversial issue. Human genome editing has been banned in some countries, and many others have enacted restrictive laws against it. While the U.S. doesn’t outright ban it, it does not fund scientific research on it.
Human genome editing is still a relatively young field, and genetically modified humans most likely won’t be prevalent anytime soon. But, if they ever are, society will undergo dramatic changes to accommodate them.