Genetic engineering: Not just science fiction

Anant Naik

In 1997, the movie “Gattaca” was released, showing the concept of eugenics. In the film, children were genetically engineered to have the best characteristics of their parents. Movies like this led many people to fear how far science would push boundaries in the name of discovery. For many today, these fears are no longer science fiction. 
 
Over the past few years, scientists have been working to develop genomic editing, a process by which we can change parts of DNA. A new method, called the CRISPR/Cas9 system, has recently become incredibly popular.
 
Scientists developed the CRISPR/Cas9 system after making important observations of the natural immune systems of certain microorganisms, like bacteria.
 
Specifically, when viruses attack bacterial cells, the bacteria react with a mechanism that can disable the foreign genetic material. 
 
Now, researchers have been able to use this mechanism in multicellular organisms. In these organisms, the CRISPR/Cas9 system functions as a 
biological pair of scissors that cuts away a harmful or undesired genetic fragment, replacing it with new genetic information that the researcher wishes to express. 
 
When it comes to researching various diseases, this technology opens up potent avenues for exploring new therapeutics. For instance, we can now cut out important genes that are prone to express cancerous proteins. The technique will also help us create animal models in research that can meet the specific genetic needs of a researcher, pushing forward specificity in scientific research. 
 
However, when a new technology like this becomes popular in media outlets, it’s easy for many to misunderstand how far the technology has come or how regulated it is. Some fear that, like in “Gattaca,” we will now be able to engineer human babies to become taller or shorter based on genetic manipulation. From a bioethical standpoint, people have argued that CRISPR/Cas9 will help create designer babies and allow scientists to “play God.” 
 
There are some important considerations to keep in mind when addressing these fears. First, our physical characteristics are incredibly complex and involve a tremendous number of genes. Any attempt to make physical changes would be tremendously hard. In fact, scientists in China have reported to have already tried to change genes using this technique on human embryos, and they failed. Furthermore, there are important bioethics organizations that check and debate what researchers should and should not do.
 
As this technology will be explored further, we need to separate science from science fiction. As a society, we ought to read and understand the new research that’s going on without reacting to baseless fears. While we should exercise caution in moving forward, we should also admire how far we’ve come. Genetic engineering was once considered hand-wavy science fiction. Now, it’s a new frontier of science.