DNA sequencing and editing have been around for a long time – after all, the writers of Jurassic Park had to get the idea from somewhere – but recent developments have changed the game in some incredible ways. With the new affordability of genetic sequencing and the amazing new tech of CRIPSR, it may not be long until genetic diseases are a thing of the past.
DNA sequencing is the process of reading DNA, just like reading a line of computer code. Until very recently, sequencing an entire genome cost hundreds of millions of dollars; sequencing the human genome was a project that took 13 years to complete, and cost somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion. Now we can sequence a full human genome in just a couple of days, for about $1,000, and the price is expected to drop even further. (You can read a report about the cost of genome sequencing here, as well.) Currently you can send away for genetic tests that can tell you incredible things about your health and ancestors for $200, a level of personal genomic information that was simply impossible at any price only a few decades ago!
This information is ushering in an age of personalized medicine, where instead of looking at what treatments affect some random person on the street best, and then hoping it works for you, doctors can actually tailor their treatments specifically for your needs. You know those scary warnings about side effects for medicine, where you just hope really hard it never happens to you, but you’ve probably heard at least one horror story about someone who really did have their arms paralyzed or something? Personalized medicine means they can tell you “no you, specifically you, won’t have any bad reactions to this medicine, we checked”.
So that’s pretty amazing already, but CRISPR adds a whole new level of amazing. Basically, editing genes used to be incredibly hard and messy. Sure, we made a few glowing fish (which were considered a big deal back in the day) and some especially hearty crops (which, again, people fought over like crazy, and still do), but it was all very slow and difficult to do and gene editing like in the world of science fiction seemed a very, very long way off.
Then, in a surprise to absolutely everyone, we found out that the bacteria used to make yogurt has a handy-dandy toolset for manipulating DNA. And we could use it ourselves. Suddenly, all bets were off. In the years since Science magazine chose CRISPR as the breakthrough of the year for 2015, the world of DNA editing has exploded. From pioneering the treatment of genetic diseases and cancer, to fighting aging itself, CRISPR has insipired a new age of innovation, particularly in medicine.
Even human embryos have been edited, in a move that’s fraught with controversy. A Chinese scientist named He Jiankui announced the birth of the world’s first gene-edited babies back in 2018, to massive backlash from scientists and laypeople all over the world. Now his actions have led to experts calling for a ban on editing traits in such a way that they can be passed down to future children.
To be clear, the babies were edited to be protected from HIV, which at first seems like a noble enterprise. However, the babies weren’t really at risk of HIV, and their parents didn’t know what they were agreeing to. Furthermore, CRISPR is still a new technology, and just about everyone thinks we should take time to make sure we really know what we’re doing before we start editing babies.
However on the other hand, while I do not condone the actions of He Jiankui at all, the truth is that genetic editing is not the problem here – lax ethics are. I would personally plead with you to not let one madman’s rash actions stop innocents from being cured of genetic diseases in the future, in more ethical ways, with a better understanding of the technology. Gene editing is not evil – it is a tool that can be used for good or ill. Let’s make sure we use it only for good.