The View From Here: Opening a genetic Pandora’s box

Volodymyr Kish.

Last week, I saw a documentary on television about the rapidly emerging field of genetic modification. In it they showed the example of a fertility clinic in Kyiv called “Nadiya” (Hope) that is using genetic editing technology to create embryos from not a man and a woman, but from a man and two women. In the example shown, the woman had a defective gene that prevented her from conceiving a normal fetus. The lab replaced the defective gene in one of her egg cells with the corresponding normal gene from another woman, then fertilized it “in vitro” with her husband’s sperm creating a more “normal” embryo that eventually developed into a normal healthy baby.

The reason that the documentary producers chose a Ukrainian example is the fact that this procedure is legal in Ukraine, whereas in Canada, the U.S. and in many other countries it is illegal. This capability raises some very serious issues about the future of mankind, which up to now has been governed by the scientific theory known as “Natural Selection” first postulated by Charles Darwin.

Ever since the dawn of life on this planet, the Darwinian process of evolution has held sway on the types of living organisms that have come into existence. The biological processes behind this phenomenon are now well documented and understood. Natural selection, working on the random mutation of genetic DNA material, causes all types of organisms to evolve into forms best suited to the environment that they find themselves living in.

The characteristics of each distinct species is defined by a blueprint called a genome which consists of a number of strings called chromosomes, each of which is made up of strands of DNA material structured as a double helix of molecules called nucleotides. There are only four types of nucleotides – cytosine [C], guanine [G], adenine [A] and thymine [T]).

The human genome contains 23 pairs of chromosomes, each chromosome containing up to hundreds of millions of nucleotides. The complete human genome contains a total of some 3 billion nucleotides, virtually all of which have been identified and mapped since 2004. Specific sequences of these nucleotides within each chromosome called genes, determine all the physical characteristics of our species, such as colour of hair and eyes, appearance, adult height, physique, strength and intelligence. The string of nucleotides for a particular gene would look something like this – “GTAAACGGCAACTGGT…”.

The great variability of physical characteristics within a species come about from the fact that mutations, either random or caused by environmental factors, can alter genes with significant consequences, either positive or negative. These changes are then passed down to succeeding generations. Positive changes can help individuals of that species compete more strongly within their environment and eventually succeed in becoming dominant. However, some mutations, such as those that result in genetically caused diseases, disorders or weaknesses can eventually result in the extinction of that particular species if those genes are passed on to succeeding generations.

The fact that we humans have become the dominant species on earth is due to a long chain of mutations that over the course of millions of years has created modern homo sapiens. Whether you ascribe this result to intelligent design by a supernatural God or Creator, or just a random sequence of evolutionary events, has now been rendered moot as far as the future is concerned. This is because we now have all the tools and power to control our genome and engineer the future course of what mankind should be like.

As I mentioned earlier, we have now mapped the complete human genome, and have identified many of the genes associated with our physical appearance and structure, as well as those that cause many genetic diseases and disorders. More importantly, within the past five years, a new technology called CRISPR has been developed that enables us to “edit” any given gene in our genome. It is now a fairly straightforward process to go in and do the equivalent of cut, copy, paste, delete or insert nucleotides into a gene. The potential benefits of this could be enormous. We now have the power to render genetic disorders and diseases extinct within the space of a few generations. We could also use this capability to delay aging, eliminate the susceptibility to many diseases, increase strength, intelligence, and many other physical characteristics.

There is however a potential dark side as well as an existential moral and ethical issue. We now literally have the power to play “God”. If a couple decides to have a baby, it is now technically possible for them through genetic editing of the embryo to engineer their resulting offspring to any specification they desire. What is worse, is that the CRISPR technology is not something that only well-funded labs, universities and corporations can afford or know how to use, it is now readily available for anybody with a little smarts and a basement laboratory setup.

In fact a whole community of amateur “bio-hackers” has sprung up that are experimenting with this technology with little or no oversight or regulation. Putting the ability to re-engineer human beings or to create new life forms in the hands of people with potentially little scientific knowledge or ethical scruples is frightening beyond belief. If you think that climate change is an existential threat to the future of mankind, then I would suggest that this is far worse.