Not Your Grandpa’s Biotechnology

Carlos Mariscal and Angel Petropanagos argue that we need to pay more attention to the ethical issues surrounding CRISPR, the new gene editing technology.


This week, researchers met in Washington D.C. to discuss scientific advancements in gene editing technologies. On the agenda was a new gene editing system called CRISPR. CRISPR is like a pair of scissors for cutting genes. By using various proteins, it can locate, insert, delete, edit, silence, or express any specific gene.

Whereas previous gene editing techniques were laborious, inefficient, and imprecise, The CRISPR system is easy, fast, precise, accurate, and relatively cheap. It makes gene editing more accessible than ever before.

CRISPR can be used to alter the genetic material in any organism at any stage of development. It could be used on somatic cells to alter the genes in an individual organism and on germ (reproductive) cells to alter the genetic material of future generations.

Public attention fell on CRISPR earlier this year when Chinese researchers announced they had used this technology on (non-viable) human embryos. This was the first human germline application of CRISPR. Reactions have been mixed.

Some people see CRISPR as a scientific breakthrough and as a potential cure for various human diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, AIDS, and sickle cell anemia.

Others worry that using CRISPR on humans leads us down the path to eugenics. By making changes to the germline, scientists could control what genetic material was passed on to future generations, a practice which some imagine could lead to racist, classist, or merely unwise modifications of future human generations.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.