Genetic engineering. I realize that this topic has been beaten to death in popular culture, but I don’t think the focus has been on the actual technology—really only the flashy outcomes for lay people. I can understand the need to simplify and sensationalize for entertainment, but decoupling the effects from the cause is, at best, ignorant and, at worst, misleading.

 The reason that genetic engineering is popular today is largely because of the discovery of CRISPR. But it’s important to note that the field itself is not new; nearly all commercial forms of insulin are from genetically engineered bacteria.

Prior to Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR), technologies like Zinc Finger Nucleases (ZFNs) were somewhat random. While it was likely that the gene you wanted to manipulate would be inserted into a specific location, it was unclear where in the host’s DNA it would end up. Far more often than not, the gene would end up either in the middle of another host gene (likely lethal) or end up in the junkyard of the host genome, which is effectively useless. Both problems effectively made genetic engineering on humans far too risky.

The introduction of CRISPR, however, has completely changed the field.

CRISPR works similarly to ZFNs, except that it has a very specific targeting domain so that the genes almost always end up in the location that you want them to. While there are still minor kinks to correct, the technique will likely be perfected within this decade. While this technique is no doubt one of the finest inventions in the field of biology, even the person that discovered it, Dr. Jennifer Doudna, is calling for the halting of research in the field until bioethics has a chance to catch up.

The terms “designer babies” and “gene drive” are very common buzzwords; however, they genuinely do present ethical challenges for us a species. For example, most people wouldn’t have a problem using CRISPR to eradicate debilitating genetic conditions or destroying the ability of insect-carried diseases to infect people.

The problem arises when we begin to consider what counts as pathology, there is an argument that variation from societal, social or biological normality makes people unique. Surely something like schizophrenia or leukemia is morally permissible to eradicate, but what about autism, homosexuality or intersexuality?  It’s a relatively short slippery slope before you end up at eugenics.

Another cause for concern is the ecological impact of transgenics. Using the CRISPR based Gene Drive construct, you can force all offspring of a transgenic organism to carry your gene and their offspring, and then their offspring. This is ideal in a lab; however, if a single individual is accidentally released into the environment, it could easily damage genetic diversity, and permanently disturb the careful equilibrium of an ecosystem.

There are instances in which not using cheap, readily available technology like CRISPR to cure or prevent diseases may be unethical. For example, the technology to destroy the means by which malaria spreads already exists. Is it really ethical to allow a disease that affects over 200 million people a year (90% of whom are children) to exist? Are there limits that we shouldn’t cross? Until we have those discussions and draw the lines, research in genetic engineering is effectively playing with fire, analogous to research in nuclear fission during the Cold War.

Like a thermonuclear bomb, releasing CRISPR technology into the world, whether using it for humans or other animals, is not an action that we can reverse, and its results could be equally catastrophic to life on earth.

These discussions aren’t entirely hypothetical by the way; the first genetically modified human babies were born in China last year.

To clarify, I am not against progress in CRISPR research. I am a huge fan of the technology and I believe it can be an invaluable resource to improve the world. However, as a student in this field, I am concerned with the ramifications of this techology, enough that it gives me pause. The public discussion surrounding genetic engineering and legislation desperately needs to catch up to the science.


  1. Taking into consideration the ramifications and ethics of genetic engineering is important. However, I find many issues with this article.

    First, you say that popular culture simplifies and sensationalizes discussions around this topic, but then you title your article “Genetic engineering and the end of the world: In the next decade, CRISPR technology may change the fabric of the human species for good.” What could be more sensational than that?

    Second, eugenics is a misused term. How is intentionally removing variants that cause schizophrenia not a form of eugenics? Who gets to decide what is considered a “designer baby?”

    When you say “Until we have those discussions and draw the lines, research in genetic engineering is effectively playing with fire…” who are you referring to when you say “we”? This nuance is important and exploring it would be more interesting and important than just saying we need to think about genetic engineering and the consequences, as that has been said for decades.

    Third, you say “Like a thermonuclear bomb, releasing CRISPR technology into the world, whether using it for humans or other animals, is not an action that we can reverse, and its results could be equally catastrophic to life on earth.” Wow, now that is sensational. Also, it is not completely true. We don’t yet fully understand whether applications like gene drive could be reversed. However, in the case of human engineering if we can remove a particular variant we could also add it back in, so to speak. Theoretically you could just as easily engineer someone to have schizophrenia as you could to not have schizophrenia.

    Again, I am not disputing that the consequences/ramifications of genetic engineering need to be considered I am just pointing out that here is your opportunity to dive in and start a more nuanced conversation yet you write an article that touches on the topic only superficially.

    • Hey there! I was just re-visiting this article when I saw your comment. I just have a few things I’d like to offer context on. I agree that the title was sensationalized but it was written by the paper, my actual submission lacked a title.
      The point I was trying to raise through eugenics was the line between what should/should not be considered a pathology. While schizophrenia is clearly a pathology, something like deafness is more complicated. The average person would consider deafness a pathology, it is not always viewed as one by the deaf community (
      Personally, I would consider any genetic manipulation as “designer” but curing a disease is not the same as choosing eye color. The delineating line has not been set, which was my point. To continue my example, deafness to some of the deaf is considered a unique characteristic, a part of themself and their identity, would it be fair to deny them that?
      When I said ‘we’ I mean society and the world, there is a lack of standardization for laws surrounding genetic engineering globally. While this caution isn’t new, the tools we now possess make that warning far more pertinent.
      We do know that gene-drive is irreversible, it’s precisely the basis of projects like ‘needlenose’. The fact is, the sequences placed in the CRISPR array are subject to genetic drift like all DNA, and its effects genuinely cannot be predicted. Hypothetically, if the gRNA happens to match a different native sequence it could potentially wipe out a species.
      Unfortunately, you cannot simply add a trait back once you’ve removed it, any changes made at the genetic level have to be done at the zygotic level, as reliably mutating all the cells in a human is currently far beyond our capabilities.

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