Within a year or two of a new gene-editing technique, CRISPR, being invented — whereby faulty parts of genes can be precisely snipped out and replaced with standard parts — huge controversy has already erupted. As I write, many concerned research geneticists, are holding an International Summit on Human Gene Editing in Washington DC, some saying that gene-editing must be banned.
Most active scientists, however, say, that the research is so potentially productive that it must continue — albeit carefully. If it’s banned then gene-editing will continue underground. For example, scientists in China have already carried out gene-editing on human cells while all those in the West are abiding by a voluntarily moratorium until there’s been more research on other animals first.
The danger is that if human gene-editing is carried out, seemingly successfully for one purpose, it may also introduce a mistake into an individual’s genome which doesn’t actually reveal itself for some decades, long after he or she has had children in their turn. It may then be impossible — so opponents say — to locate all those who might have received the genetic mistake and will inevitably express it as a disease or a handicap sooner or later.
There’ll be no possibility of world-wide bans, nor are there likely to be any legal bans in individual advanced countries. The reason is that the desire for mothers to have healthy babies is so strong that it will subvert any moralists who want to control them. Selective abortion of faulty foetuses, and the culling of fertilized eggs during IVF treatment are also, strictly speaking, gene-editing, and they were controversial, too, in their very early days. I think we can take it that CRISPR-type gene-editing will continue also.