Ethics of Genetic Engineering

One of the most quickly advancing scientific fields in the current era is genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is the practice of altering or manipulating an organism’s genetic code using different kinds of biotechnology, thus altering its physical characteristics, or phenotype. One of the current uses of genetic engineering is to create genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for human consumption. An example of a genetically modified crop is Bt corn, a variety of corn genetically altered to express a gene from the bacteria B. thuringiensis (Bt). This gene is poisonous to insects, allowing the corn to express pesticidal properties. 

Though genetic editing is currently mainly used for altering the properties of foods, its potential uses are numerous and unlimited. One of the newest and most promising advancements in the field of genetic engineering is the discovery and use of the CRISPR-Cas9 system. CRISPR-Cas9 is able to cut pieces out of an organism’s genome, allowing other genes to be inserted in and expressed in the organism’s phenotype. This lends itself to multiple potential uses, the most impressive of which is the possibility to help prevent or even cure genetically inherited diseases. Debilitating afflictions such as Huntington’s disease and hemophilia, which are a result of genetic inheritance of these mutations from an individual’s parents, have been shown to be preventable before birth due to CRISPR. According to the magazine Scientific American, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia used the CRISPR technology to edit the genomes of mice and prevent a fatal liver disease, all before the birth of the mice. Though experiments like the one described have only been performed on animals, they display that the potential to remedy fatal genetic afflictions in humans is in reach due to CRISPR. 

However, critics of CRISPR fear it has another use in human fetuses: the ability to pick and choose a child’s intellect, physical ability, height, and other features before a child’s birth, thus resulting in what is often termed a “designer baby.” In the cult sci-fi film “Gattaca,” genetic engineering becomes a prevalent part of society, with people without modifications deemed “invalid” and seen as less than modified people. Though the fear of this scenario becoming reality is justified, the benefits of genetic engineering are too prevalent to ignore. The possibility to eradicate dangerous diseases before birth is extremely powerful and ultimately can help humanity prosper.

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