For the first time ever scientists can change, discard and rearrange the DNA of nearly any living organism, including you and me.
Think about the consequences of being able to do this: From the elimination of certain diseases to saving near-extinct species; from making it possible to using pig organs in humans to decreasing our dependence on toxic pesticides; from controlling the rate at which tomatoes ripen to dramatically increasing the size of Atlantic salmon whilst reducing their food intake; from overriding traditional rules of biological inheritance to preserving almost any genetic trait through a population.
Scientists have in fact discovered the ‘God- gene’. The possibilities are endless and the risks not fully known. The ethical debate and hardly begun and most of us are really clueless as to both the threats and opportunities. Neither the lack of debate nor our ignorance is likely to stop the on-going exploration and discoveries that have the scientist so enthralled.
Anthony James, a molecular geneticist at the University of California, by combining a revolutionary new technology called CRISPR-Cas9 with a natural system known as a gene-drive has essentially hacked the future of DNA. The implications are enormous.
There are some obvious immediate ‘wins’ and interventions that (should) meet with little resistance in spite of the concerns. CRISPR packages could save the bird population of Hawaii that is under immense threat. There is the possibility of entirely eliminating the threat of children being born with Tay-Sachs disease. There is the possibility of eliminating the threat of all mosquito-borne illnesses including Zika. (Projections are that by the time the outbreak of Zika comes to an end in Puerto Rico at least a quarter of the 3.5 million population may have contracted Zika).
In this area alone (genetics), the future is not what it used to be. Breakthroughs and advances in this area will significantly alter and transform the human experience and landscape. It is subject matter that is hard to get one’s head around and that leaves most feeing as though they are helpless bystanders or makes it easy to drum-up fear amongst the uniformed masses.
In the context of this emerging reality it would seem (to me) that those guardians of societal ethics and spirituality are ill equipped to guide the discourse. They somehow seem out of step and off the pace to offer any meaningful contribution to the future of our society. These things (all things DNA) will happen and we need the conversation to be able to keep up with the unfolding reality. The religious fundamentalists all persuasions seldom offer anything worthwhile to the complexity and implications that are part and parcel of this conversation. But this is another conversation for another occasion.
The future is not what it seems. For some that might be terrifying, for others, it is exhilarating. Leaders, those to whom others look, need to prepare themselves and those they lead for the dawn of this altered reality. It is unlike anything we have experienced and both the possibilities and dangers are enormous.
So, exactly what colour eyes would you like your child to have?