An Issue of Human Genetic Engineering

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With an increased awareness of the human footprint being left on Earth, there has been a shift in many science fields to find ways to improve sustainability. Following the 1987 Brundtland Report, sustainability was defined and categorized into three parts. According to this report, sustainability is the development of services and methods to meet the needs of the present but these developments do not impede future generations from meeting their needs. For the study of biology and ecology, developing methods to improve sustainability is necessary to maintain diverse and productive ecosystems for both present and future generations. If emphasis is not placed on sustainability, serious consequences to the ecosystem will result.  Resources of the present will be depleted, leaving a future with destroyed ecosystems and life struggling to exist. It is imperative that the fields of ecology and biology focus on sustainability in order to ensure that life on Earth is able to maintain a state of homeostasis and future generations are able to meet their needs.  Sustainability can be classified into three different areas; environmental, social and economic (United Nations, 1987). Environmental sustainability requires that the amount of environmental resources used is less than or equivalent to the rate at which these resources can be regenerated (Basiago, 1999).

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This concept implies that there must be limits to the amount of resources being used at a given time. Forecasting the current and future needs of the society allows for the determination of how much of the natural resources are needed and what percentage of this can be met before exceeding the rate of regeneration. From this information, biological and ecological sciences have looked to develop methods that can fill in the gaps.  One example is shifting the primary source of energy from natural gas, which is a limited resource and nearly impossible to regenerate, to renewable energy, which is near limitless and easily regenerated. These renewable energy sources include solar and wind power.   Economic sustainability is interlinked with environmental sustainability. In order to achieve economic sustainability, predefined economic levels must be met but not at the expense of depleting natural resources for future generations. These economic levels allow humans to meet their most basic needs (i.e. the income of the population allows for individuals to purchase needed goods such as food and clothing) (United Nations, 1987). 

Social sustainability looks to provide all individuals basic rights and freedoms and for all to have the opportunity to improve their lives. This means that all cultures, races, and religions are treated equally and political systems do not take advantage of the citizens.  Through research in biology and ecology, economic, environmental, and social sustainability are continuing to become more feasible and these improvements are allowing for resources to be maintained for future generations (United Nations, 1987). Human genetic engineering is one area of biological research that can help attain and maintain social sustainability. This area of sustainability looks to ensure that all humans are able to achieve their most basic needs and have the opportunity to improve their social situation. However, there are those who are genetically disfavored to be able to meet this level of sustainability.  Whether due to disease, low intelligence, or a predisposition to addiction, there exist some humans that will inhibit the achievement of social sustainability. Through human genetic engineering, these genetic obstacles can be altered to allow for individuals to no longer suffer from conditions that prevent them from meeting their basic social needs thus allowing society as a whole to achieve social sustainability.                         

Human evolution will be positively impacted by human genetic engineering. According to an article in The Institute of Clinical Investigation, A new wave of technology that is variously termed gene editing, genome editing, or genome engineering has emerged to address this demand by giving investigators the ability to precisely and efficiently introduce a variety of genetic alterations into mammalian cells, ranging from knockin of single nucleotide variants to insertion of genes to deletion of chromosomal regions(Gupta, Musunru 2014). In 2012, CRISPR was developed which has the potential to eradicate genetic diseases. This form of technology cuts out a targeted DNA sequence and replaces it with a corrected sequence. The modified DNA is able to be replicated within the individual and passed onto future generations (Specter, 2016). CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (NIH). In the scientific community, CRISPR holds a large magnitude of promise to help in the eradication of genetic diseases and disorders. The idea CRISPR came from bacteria and how their defense system works against viruses. Essentially, the bacteria takes a picture of the DNA from the invading virus. The bacteria then produces repeats (copies) in their DNA and when a virus comes in contact with the bacteria again, it uses an enzyme called Cas9 to take apart the invading viruses’ DNA (NIH). This ultimately obliterates the virus. This process inspired scientists to use this same concept in humans. In humans, the process of CRISPR and Cas9 is similar to that of bacteria. Scientists are able to select the area of DNA that needs to be edited. They achieve this by inserting a specific guide dna that matches with the area of dna to be removed. This guide DNA forms a system with the Cas9 enzyme. The enzyme then cuts cuts the area of DNA and the section of replacement DNA is then inserted (Youtube video). The genius behind Cas9 and CRISPR is that these technologies target only specific dna segments.

Whereas, in other treatment procedures, the whole body can have adverse effects from the treatment. In addition, the CRISPR procedure, theoretically, could be done in an outpatient setting. Outpatient procedures are more comfortable for patients because they are sent home once their procedure is complete. Whereas in a hospital setting, the conditions are not as comfortable as one’s own home. A study was done in Italy on the social sustainability in health care facilities. They found that hospitals provide a mixed environment for patients. An environment where people come to get better, and the employees are there to work (Capolongo, S& G, Marco,D., Nickolova,M & Nachiero, Dario,Rebecchi, Settimo, Gaetano,Vittori, G Buffoli, Maddalena, 2016). They stated the following: coming to hospital is an occasional, very intense event and an unexpected public and institutionalised experience in which the patient has to live for a specific period; whereas, for hospital staff, it is a demanding and continuous workplace(Capolongo, S& G, Marco,D., Nickolova,M & Nachiero, Dario,Rebecchi, Settimo, Gaetano,Vittori, G Buffoli, Maddalena, 2016) Essentially, by having more technologically advanced medical procedures (potentially, such as CRISPR) done in an outpatient setting, we produce an overall higher well-being for society (Capolongo, S& G, Marco,D., Nickolova,M & Nachiero, Dario,Rebecchi, Settimo, Gaetano,Vittori, G Buffoli, Maddalena, 2016). Patients are able to live a more normal, happy life, opposed to being confined to hospital walls. CRISPR and Cas9 would give patients the ability to change how they receive care. Ultimately,  with the ability to pass these changes onto future generations, human evolution will result in the eradication of genetic diseases.          

The moral and social ramifications of human genetic engineering have been heavily debated by scientists over the past two decades. Many who oppose the idea of altering one’s gene code predict that parents will begin to think of their children as products produced by manufacturers that are the scientists. According to Nick Bostrom of Oxford University in his paper called Human Genetic Enhancements: A Transhumanist Perspective, opposers also believe that the enhancing of the genetic code to eradicate disabilities, will intensify the already existing prejudice against people with disabilities. These concerns should be considered, however they are paranoid speculations with no basis from recent available correlations. For example, when new biological engineering came about to alleviate problems caused by infertility, ie in vitro fertilization, or embryo screening, it was not interpreted by the common population as morally unjust (Bostrom 2004).

In the same way these methods improve the likelihood of a fetus growing, human genetic engineering improves likelihood that that fetus is healthy. Another concern raised by opposers are the negative social impacts that could be introduced as a result of widespread human genetic engineering. One such concern includes increased prejudice against non-perfect people, because technically their problem could have been fixed as an embryo. While human genetic engineering does not promise a utopian society, free of bias and prejudice, it can help alleviate these social issues by reminding the general public that if someone has an abnormality, it is not as a result of their upbringing or status, but rather the result of a typo in their genetic makeup (Bostrom 2004). This can actually make society more tolerable and understanding towards those with disabilities, even after many have had their genetic makeup changed. Opponents to human genetic engineering have sighted concerns with altering the genome of the human germ line. In the Nature article, Don’t Edit the Human Germ Line, the authors focus on editing the germ line within an embryo. Changes within the embryo germ line may not be effective because the removed DNA may not be made on both target strands or the cells may begin to divide before the corrections are complete. However, the effects of these incomplete changes would not be known until after birth.  There could be harmful consequences to this embryo as it ultimately develops into a baby/adult (Lanphier, 2015).

In 2015, the Chinese were able to perform gene editing on a non viable embryo. This demonstrates that testing in human genetic engineering can proceed through the use of an embryo without impacting the life of a future child (which is the concern of the those for banning human genetic engineering).  From this research, the Chinese were able to determine that there were many unanticipated mutations and a low success rate of implanting the targeted DNA into the embryos (Loria 2015).   By performing the research on non viable embryos, the Chinese were able to uncover information that is more applicable to the effects that would be seen in a viable embryo (Puping, 2015).  Opponents of human genetic engineering often imply that testing conducted on embryos is unregulated. Currently, there are a number of regulations in place that protect embryos used in scientific testing. These regulations include prohibiting fetal stem cell research and embryos matured past 14 days (NCSL, 2015).

Both the government and scientific community understands the responsibility of testing on embryos and regulations exist to ensure that all methods of testing are ethical. Those who want to ban human genetic engineering often focus on the idea that human genetic engineering is playing God. As discussed in the article, The Case for Genetically Engineered Babies, this opinion portrays human engineering as a method to pick and choose traits that would build a super human or designer baby (Gyngell, 2015). Although genetic engineering has the capacity to redesign the human species, this does not mean that this application of genetic engineering must be done.  The use of genetic engineering can be regulated such that it inhibits altering genes with the ultimate purpose of enhancing a characteristic or trait. Human genetic engineering should only be used to eradicate a disease or improve the health of an individual. 

By imposing such regulations, building designer babies would be prevented but the life saving ability of this technology could be used. Furthermore, the decision to ban the use of human genetic engineering is in of itself playing God. Individuals should have the right to weigh the risk of different treatments and ultimately decide what option is best.  Treatments affecting an individual should not be governed by the morals of others.  Human genetic engineering has the ability to allow for social sustainability. By curing individuals of diseases and allowing for these changes to be copied into future generations, all humans can potentially have the ability to meet their basic needs and improve their social situation. Not having the burden of medical expenses or the emotional toll of watching a loved one die, allows society to focus on needed developments in other areas such as government or cultural understanding.  Human engineering provides the human race an opportunity to improve social sustainability in a magnitude that has only existed in the imagination.

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An Issue Of Human Genetic Engineering. (2019, Nov 12). Retrieved November 30, 2022 , from

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