The first half of the 20th century was shaped by physics. The second half was written by information technology and the constantly shrinking micro-chip. It is now becoming increasingly likely that the first half of the 21st century will be shaped by, no; not Artificial Intelligence (AI), but Bio-Tech.
In 2012, Jennifer Doudna published a work now considered one of the most significant discoveries in the history of biology. Doudna uncovered that CRISPR-Cas9 could be programmed with RNA to edit genomic DNA. While gene-editing in eukaryotic cells has been possible since the 1980’s – it is only due to the discovery of CRISPR that efficient, highly-selective editing is on the cusp of reality.
CRISPR came under global scrutiny in 2018, when the rogue Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he had successfully created the world’s first gene-edited babies. Jiankui re-constructed twin embryos to make them resistant to HIV. Even more recently, Jason Zayner, a popular bio-hacker, has gone viral in his home-made attempts to increase muscle-mass through use of the CRISPR tool. Zayner targeted the myostatin gene, ‘knocking it out’ so-as-to allow for excess growth in his arms.
Despite both Jiankui and Zayner’s actions being condemned as unethical, dangerous and premature, they have increased discussion around the ramifications of gene-editing.
The potential benefits of CRISPR are immeasurable. If the molecule does become the new microchip, every single aspect of our genetic make-up will be open to change. Proponents dream of a world where sickle-cell, blindness and cancer are edited out. The effects of viruses such as Covid-19 pre-emptively negated. A generation of children born with the looks of the Hollywood stars that their parents could only dream of. Boomers salivate at the life-extension benefits, with CRISPR just recently being found to radically extend life expectancy in mice. Despite currently being most effective in the embryonic stage, the billions invested into bio-tech annually ($16.6B in 2020) means we shouldn’t bet against breakthroughs in human editing during adulthood.
While this seems utopic, it does not require a Nobel Prize in Biology to become cognizant of how dark CRISPR’s misuse could be. In theory, dictatorial regimes could biologically engineer a generation of enhanced ‘super soldiers’. Or perhaps, the Hitler of tomorrow may use CRISPR for biological warfare, cultivating super-viruses focussed on attacking specific populations. Some nations may even leave gene-editing in the hands of free-markets.
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So how far off of these outcomes are we? To this, closer every year is the only appropriate answer. In London, scientists are perfecting a gene drive to wipe out entire populations of the malaria-carrying mosquito. Meanwhile, in Portland researchers have begun using CRISPR to cure blindness in trial groups. But CRISPR is still in its infancy. The challenges of precisely isolating genes to minimise unintended side-effects are vast. And so, as with most life-changing technology – it is impossible to predict when CRISPR will be commonplace.
The development of CRISPR is akin to opening Pandora’s Box, this is a technology which, if successfully implemented, will change our axiomatic understanding of nature in a previously un-thinkable way.
What would the potential roll-out of CRISPR related technology even look like?
If left in the hands of private markets, citizens may pay for the editing of specific genes within their children, and potentially themselves. In this case, parents could pay for their children to have a specific IQ, height, eye-colour and fast-twitch fibres. This would, quite frankly be a dream scenario for Big Pharma. Under this framework, the notion of meritocracy all but vanishes, while equal opportunity is by no means a reality in 2021: it is far less likely in a world where the wealthy can pay for better genes.
Alternatively, nation-states may control the production and dissemination of CRISPR. In this case, they may elect to differentiate medicinal cases from aesthetic ones. Similar to our current system of vaccine jabs, children may be on-mass edited to prevent sickle cell, Covid-19 and perhaps even cancer. This system seems more appropriate than the free-market approach, until one considers the implication of state-wide CRISPR tech being placed in the hand of a totalitarian dictator. Dounda herself vividly recalls a nightmare she once had of Hitler utilising CRISPR for nefarious purposes. Given the geo-political tensions of the US & China among others; it is hard to conceive of a world where individual governments could be trusted to safely administer CRISPR procedures.
It seems then that the only way to manage production and dissemination of gene-editing technology globally would be through a worldwide regulatory body. The U.N successfully mediated the Cold War, right? No, not really – in fact they didn’t do much at all. And this would be an even greater challenge. While nuclear weapons could only ever be deployed at a governmental level, biohacking can occur within individuals. This means any universal body would have to police use in exceptional depth.
Having said that, this still remains the safest path. But regulation cannot happen retroactively in bio-tech. Regulatory bodies have traditionally been established in response to public outcry. For example, it was known for decades that seat belts would significantly decrease the number of vehicle-related deaths. And yet, it wasonly in 1968 that seatbelts were mandated in the U.S. We can’t really wait for a super race to develop in North Korea before deciding to do something about it.
And so, while CRISPR could provide the pathway to utopia, it is always worth remembering that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. A cautious, global oversight in the development of bio-tech is not only advisable – it is necessary.