Do it yourself genetics: the ethics of gene editing

Dec 10, 2016, 3:40 PM

PHOENIX — What if you could rewrite the code for life? It something biologists are now able to do. It’s called gene editing and it allows scientists to select desired traits in a plant or animal at the DNA level. This could potentially revolutionize such industries like agriculture or medicine.

With a simple “cut and paste” you can make crops more insect resistant or create healthier animals, or even get rid of pests like mosquitos.

“Gene editing uses a series of scientific methods to alter the DNA of an organism,” said James Collins.

Collins is a Virginia M. Ullman Professor of National History and the Environment at ASU’s School of Life Sciences and the co-author of an article on the ethics of gene editing which appeared in Science magazine in November.

While the groundbreaking possibilities of gene editing are mindboggling, Collins and other scientists are asking bigger questions.

“The notion of editing genes in of itself is basically neutral,” he said. “It’s a method for altering the biology of an organism. The question is: toward what end?”

Humans have been altering nature for centuries, Collins said. From farmers to dog breeders, people have been breeding plants and animals to get specific and desirable characteristics. However, now that scientists can reach in and alter the genome of a living thing in a very precise way it could open the door to some undesired, and potentially unknown, consequences.

One need to only look to science fiction to see where mankind’s hubris led to less than desirable outcomes. Last year’s Jurassic World is one such example. The terrifying Hollywood monster, Indominus Rex, was a hodgepodge of various animal DNA codes. Could it preclude the future of gene editing? Maybe not, but movies like Jurassic World give a fictional glimpse of what could happen.

So, where should the line be drawn? Collins says it’s up to society to discuss what should and shouldn’t be acceptable.

“The conditions under which (gene editing) is acceptable will vary depending upon the social context in which you’re working.”

Nonetheless, Collins says there are many amazing and wonderful applications for gene editing ranging from food production to biomedicine.

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Do it yourself genetics: the ethics of gene editing