CRISPR-cas9 and Ethics, Update 3: Final Summary

I have finally completed the written portion of my literature review on the ethical implications of CRISPR-cas9 gene-editing technology.  I found the research to be extremely interesting overall, as the technology is incredibly powerful (and occasionally incredibly scary!).  In terms of the process, I experienced a lot of ups and downs.  I was initially terrified by the density of much of the literature on CRISPR, as I had not tried to go so in depth on any one particular topic before.  However, I now feel that I am better prepared to accomplish such a task in the future.  Additionally, at one point in my reading I found an article that essentially accomplished what I set out to do, which was frustrating.  However, I found a new purpose in tailoring the article to those not involved in the scientific community, which was a fun challenge.  It was difficult to remove myself from the academic style I had been reading and remember that even more simple concepts should be explained, or the big picture could be lost entirely.  So, without further ado, here is a general summary of what I found .  (I would recommend reading my first post, a general summary of the mechanism itself here, as I will not be going into as much detail in this one.)

I personally identified four major areas of ethical concern as CRISPR technology moves forward.  These are ecological, genetic, societal and safety factors.  I will highlight the most fascinating examples form each.

Ecologically speaking, CRISPR is slated for use to develop gene drives in order to mitigate the spread of diseases carried by animals.  A gene drive occurs when one member of a species is mutated to have a new trait so that all of its offspring will also carry the trait.  In this fashion, the desired trait is amplified throughout the entire population.  The concerns in this area are that this may cause the wipeout of entire species or that it may upset the balance of the ecosystem overall.

In terms of genetics, the debate surrounding human germline editing weighs heavily in the debate surrounding CRISPR.  Germline edits mean that the mutation is heritable and passed down to future generations.  The positive side of this is that heritable genetic diseases could be prevented.  However, many of these edits occur through in vitro fertilization, and the long term effects of what is essentially genetically modified humans is completely unknown.

The societal implications are not as direct, but equally important.  If we allow for the editing of the human germline, there is incredible potential.  However, the line between medical necessity (disease) and general enhancement (perhaps need for sleep) can become blurred.  As such, there is the potential for discrimination or segregation based on those whose traits have been altered and those who have not.  Additionally, there are accessibility concerns.  While CRISPR is a more efficient technology, it would still be expensive in practical medical use.  As such, there is a potential to create a socioeconomic divide.

Lastly, CRISPR is not a technology which is fully understood.  There is something known as off-target effects, where the incorrect gene is inserted or deleted into the genome.  There aren’t current concrete methods for preventing this.  With a tool this powerful, one need to consider if it wise to continue at a rapid pace of development without proper safety regulation.

Overall, I found this project to be a rewarding experience.  It is my personal opinion, after completing the review, that CRISPR should not be used until greater regulations and a better understanding of the technology exist.  Most of my reading simply yielded more questions to be answered.  Also, the above notes are in the more non-scholarly style I used for the review, so if you are a nerd like me and want the technical details I would highly recommend reading into it!  Also, if I were to do a project like this again I think that, in my initial readings, I would move quicker into focusing on the quality of articles I selected rather than the quantity.  Thanks for reading, I hope you learned something, or at least got something to think about!




  1. This seems like a very interesting topic. Your comment on the potential danger of genetic similarity from gene drives leading to entire populations being wiped out is an important concern, since there is already a historical record of similar events. The Irish potato famine, for instance, was caused by genetic similarity making the entire crop weak to the same virus. Taking care not to promote genes that could be exploited by viruses could help reduce the risk, but it is important to consider. I found your comment on the accessibility of gene editing as an ethical concern insightful as well. The majority of ethical discussion on gene editing seems to be concerned with the concept of ‘playing god’, so more practical concerns, such as how high costs could lead to greater socioeconomic divides, are often overlooked. Overall, I agree that the technology is not currently understood well enough for practical use, but I think that once it is fully understood and the potential dangers are properly considered, it could become extremely useful.

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