The gene editing revolution is here. While human evolutionary changes over the years happened naturally, slowly, and on their own timeline, recent advances in science and technology are on their way to fundamentally disrupt the very evolutionary process that has made us who we are as a species.
Today, gene modification tools like CRISPR-Cas9 allow genetic material to be inserted, deleted, modified, or replaced, giving humans the ability to change DNA with precision. Understandably, the emerging capability is generating a lot of excitement in the scientific and healthcare community as it can be effectively used not only for prevention and treatment of many human diseases, enhance intelligence, and more, but it also can potentially create new biological species and fundamentally disrupt the human evolutionary process.
Nations are already using gene editing tools for treating diseases, modifying plants and animals, and developing disease-resistant crops to designer babies. As all indicators point towards a gene-editing revolution, the question we need to evaluate is, do we understand the implications, and are we ready?
Disrupting the Evolutionary Process
Evolution is commonly understood to be a process of change over time. When applied to biology, evolution refers to changes in living organisms through random mutation and natural selection. As seen over the years, we humans have been shaping our own evolutionary process by how we eat, live, and reproduce. Now, as we seek to discover how natural evolution has shaped the potentials, tendencies, and limitations of the human species, the ongoing gene-editing revolution will help us understand the roots of our physical, intellectual and emotional traits as well as our behavior.
In living biological species, DNA can either change by a process known as mutation or by gene editing. Since genes affect the body and behavior of any living species, gene editing and genetically inherited characteristics can influence the likelihood of any living biological species’ evolution or extinction. Amidst that, as we experiment with evolution and get concerned about extinction, there are also some reports emerging of efforts towards de-extinction to bring back extinct animals. That brings us to an important question: should we experiment with de-extinction?
Gene Editing Tools: Dual Use Technology
There is no doubt that gene editing tools bring great potential for the future of humanity. However, it is a dual-use technology and can be used for both good and bad. While it will likely revolutionize disease treatment, perhaps enhance intelligence, and give control to humans to evolve on our terms and timeline, it can also become a powerful tool of destruction and maybe even extinction. The emerging potential of the “democratization of destruction” amidst a do-it-yourself movement is a cause of great concern as there is no way of knowing what changes are being made to the human or any living biological species genome, where, by who, with what intention, and with what consequences.
The human ecosystem will inevitably move beyond natural evolution as scientists across nations are already using gene editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9. Gene editing in human embryos is frankly a reality now, as gene editing, genome editing, or genomic engineering processes — in which DNA is inserted, deleted, modified, or replaced by making use of specific proteins that can cut DNA precisely in selected targeted locations — is already being reported from across nations. These examples already show us the potential for danger in gene editing. In 2018, He Jiankui, a now-disgraced Chinese scientist, announced that he had successfully used CRISPR to give two twin baby girls immunity against HIV. However, scientists worldwide condemned not only the ethical ramifications of his work but also the results, noting that he likely focused on too specific of a mutation to properly give the babies immunity and that the gene he used has been linked with premature death. That brings us an important question: what security implications are emerging from gene editing, and are we prepared for the evolutionary implications?
Since DNA is involved in many biological processes: from building cells and controlling their number and type, to energy production, metabolism regulation, disease immunity, and so on, when gene editing is on its way to disrupting fundamental biological processes, it is vital to understand and evaluate its risks by evaluating how genome editing is used today. Acknowledging this emerging reality, Risk Group initiated a much-needed discussion on The Rise of Gene Editing with Dr. Rajesh Chowdhury Ph.D., on Risk Roundup.
Disclosure: I am the CEO of Risk Group LLC.
Risk Group discusses The Rise of Gene Editing with Dr. Rajesh Chowdhary Ph.D., CEO of Pharmacogenomics LLC and CSO of Insilicom LLC from the United States.
While the process of natural biological evolution involves a series of natural changes over time that causes a species to evolve, adapt to the environment, or become extinct, the question is whether the ongoing gene editing revolution accelerates our timeline of evolution or extinction.
We, informed, intelligent, and conscious individuals across nations, must control our species’ evolutionary future. The scientist within us needs to be cautious of our actions with the human species (and any other biological species) and focus on security—to help us get through the expected turmoil brought on by gene editing tools, technological transformation, revolution, and evolution.
Let us be cautious and evolve with caution.
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