The moral health implications of editing people
Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) was discovered in the 1950s, upon its discovery it was soon realised that
it guides the growth, development, function and reproduction of every known living organism.
Information is encoded in the structure of the DNA, four nucleotides are paired and make up a code
that carries instructions to create an organism. If you were to alter the instructions you would alter
the organism that holds the DNA.
As genetic engineering is gradually getting more and more effective we must have a definitive answer
on how we act as we move into a world where we can cure a growing majority of diseases and
imperfections in our bodies, Our society must have answers for hard questions such as: is it right to
eliminate mental illnesses? Is it wrong to not stop preventable suffering? What are the possible future
health risks that may occur due to unforeseen complications? Is it morally right? If left unchecked our
society could go down a dark path in the search for ‘genetic perfection’ similar to nazi germany? As
the possible benefits continue to grow inaction will only cause preventable suffering, but rash decision
making could have unforeseen complications to our future. We hold the key to a perfect world but
opening the wrong door could be a terminal mistake for our species.
Massive advancements in genetic engineering could be more influential to our current society then
computers have been over the past 20 years. A world where genetic engineering is incredibly cost
effective, socially accepted and much more advanced could usher in a new generation of human
progress. A world free of disease, a world where we can pick and choose desired traits in our
offspring, design humans to survive better in certain conditions (space travel, desserts, underwater)
or modify ourselves with bodies better build to survive off our sugar filled diets. The possibilities that
present themselves seem almost infinite. That isn’t to say there are no risks to the technology, gene
editing is a complicated process that if handled incorrectly could have long lasting effects on how we
proceed, we currently just don’t know enough about the complex interplay of our genes to avoid
Past, present and possible future consequences of genetic engineering.
Humans have been changing the genetic material of plants and animals for thousands of years, by
methods such as selective breeding, crossing, interspecies crossing, Microprojectile Bombardment,
Cell Selection, Assisted Reproductive Procedures, Embryo Splitting and many more, we have changed
both plants and animals to be more suited for our needs (e.g. dogs being domesticated or cows that
produce more milk) we have drastically changed the animal’s genes to be more to our liking. The
repercussions of this crude gene editing are felt by our society daily from dogs that are unable to
properly breath because they have been made to be more attractive than functional to pesticide
resistance in weeds which now infest millions of acres of U.S. cropland. Badly thought out genetic
edits and human intervention have caused detrimental changes to the ecosystem around us.
The possible future of mass genetic altering on humans could have just as devastating results, for
example a gene edit could achieve the desired trait but may cause blindness in the offspring many
descendants down, or worse we could create a disease that may be incurable with our methods of
treatment. We could also create a world of genetic perfection where those who are not edited in some
way are shunned out, or it could go the otherway where those edited are treated differently to
‘natural’ humans. Certain desirable traits could be made almost mandatory to citizens in select
governments similar to how the Australian government treats mandatory vaccination.
As our knowledge of genetic engineering continues to improve may be able to solve the biggest cause
of death, time, or more precise aging. We currently believe aging is caused by the continued
degradation of our cells that piles up and the telomeres responsible for preventing the ends of the
DNA sequence from fraying slowly fade away. Our current knowledge predicts it could be possible to
stop the effects of aging and make us immortal.
Transfer of traits from animals to humans sounds like a plot from a science fiction movie but like the
evolution of technology, we went from a computer being the size of a house to the size of your palm
in less than a 100 years, what’s to say we can’t do the same with genetic engineering? There may be
a future where we make astronauts that have bodies better suited to long periods of low gravity
situations, people with gills that live underwater, people built to survive on mars low gravity and thin
atmosphere. You would just have to find the gene responsible for these traits and put them in a
human (assuming the human body accepts them). For example the Naked mole-rat is almost immune
to cancer and can survive on air with very low amounts of oxygen for extended periods of time and
can survive in air with no oxygen for short amounts of time (researchers found they come to life after
18 minutes of 0% oxygen than reintroduced into oxygen fresh air), this is cause they don’t exclusively
use glucose as an energy source, they can also run off fructose as an energy source and converting
fructose into energy doesn’t require oxygen they basically have a backup source of energy. If we
could acquire a trait anywhere near as useful from animals the possibilities of application in real world
scenarios are almost endless.
Morals & Ethics
Currently we have ways of detecting possible health complications in the fetus’s of unborn babies and
often in developed countries if the risk of future health problems (e.g. down syndrome, etc.) is too
high the baby is often terminated, this is technically changing societies collective gene pool. The
decision to end a pregnancy is very personal but it is important to note the reality that we are
preselecting humans based on genetic predispositions. This will likely not change in the future we can
consider the editing of humans to be a continuation of this, selecting and creating a society with fewer
genetic problems and lower health related issues. A society with almost all of its individuals subject to
some sort of genetic manipulation sounds scary, like a science fiction novel but in reality it is very
similar to the world we already live in. We already predetermined who will live and who can’t from
birth. It would likely become the new standard as past medical practices have, the evolution of
Engineering a population based on warped perceptions of reality could change human history
catastrophically, if the technology to create a ‘perfect human’ got in the wrong hands or nefarious
authoritarian government it could be possible to create an army with superhuman muscular
structures. This could lead to an event similar to the Holocaust in which Hitler deemed the Jewish
population as unfit for survival. Technology such as this must be handled with care, if not correctly
used and implemented in society, the fallback would be tremendously grim.
In the future genetic modification will likely become more widely accepted and easily available the
temptation to use them on yourself as an individual or on your future kids would grow. If you’re going
to have a kid but you genetically modify him/her to not suffer from diseases such as arthritis why
would you not also give them other desirable features like enhanced muscular strength or a strong
kidney,why stop there?
How is this possible?
Bacteria and viruses have been fighting since the dawn of life. Bacteriophages hunt and kill bacteria.
They do this by inserting their own genetic code into the bacteria and taking them over to use them
as slaves. Majority of the time bacteria isn’t strong enough to resist the bacteriophages, but when
they do survive an attack they save a part of the bacteriophages DNA in their own genetic code in a
DNA archive called CRISPR. When the virus attacks again the bacteria quickly makes a RNA copy from
the DNA archive and inserts it into a protein called CAS9. The protein now scans the bacterias insides
for signs of the bacteriophage by comparing it to the DNA previously stored, when it fines a perfect
match it cuts out the bacteriophages DNA, protecting the bacteria from the attack.
Until now gene editing has always been a complicated, expensive and time consuming process,
recently this has all changed thanks to a revolutionary new technology called Clustered Regularly
Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR). Thanks to CRISPR the cost of engineering genetic
code have shrunk by almost 95% and the time to complete experiments has dramatically lowered.
Recently we found out the CRISPR system is highly programmable, if a copy of the DNA that you want
modified is provided to the CRISPR system then placed into a living cell it will cut out and replace the
DNA. CAS9 then takes the provided DNA and implements the sample into the new cells and can do so
will they are alive. So far CRISPR has had positive results on all experiments conducted and if the
results continue to be positive we could see a dawn of a new age of humanity.
Regardless of your opinion on genetic modification of organisms we must have a definitive stance how
we continue to use the technology because it will eventually affect us all. The first clinical trials of
CRISPR on human patients are well under way in multiple countries around the world. CRISPR has the
potential to bring humanity into an era where concepts such as age, sickness and physical/mental
limitations are a thing of the past. With this powerful tool we maybe able to cure all mental health
issues and prove our species is ready to travel across the stars. Working on accuracy is a major
concern as the first human trials begin and with widespread further research we can ensure our future
is guided by a vision for a better tomorrow. As long as we continue to study this technology in a safe
secure manner we could be on the verge of the biggest breakthrough since the microchip.
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