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CRISPR Sparks Debate Among Scientists

Ever since genetic editing emerged as a possibility, the scientific community has been pressed with questions of ethics just as much as those of discovery. Recent developments that appear to be straight out of a science fiction movie have brought both worldwide attention and fear to discussions concerning progress in the world of genetic engineering. Such is the case when it comes to CRISPR technology, a revolutionary method of genetic editing adapted from a system used by bacteria as a way to fend off viruses.

Often referred to as “genetic scissors,” CRISPR gene editing involves the precise cutting and engineering of DNA. “DNA serves as an instruction manual for life, and that encodes its function and how it works. If you can change the hard-wired code, you can change the organism,” explained Dr. Megan Hochstrasser of the Innovative Genomics Institute. The institute is an academic nonprofit located in Central Berkeley that aims to use genome tools to solve biological problems. Dr. Hochstrasser’s work focuses on outreach and communications.

CRISPR technology has the potential to treat or cure a number of genetic conditions. “We’ve been pretty much powerless in stopping these genetic diseases in the past. Now, we have these tools that let us make tweaks and potentially cure people,” explained Dr. Hochstrasser.

Find out what students think in this interactive gallery:

Is CRISPR genome editing ethical, and should it be used on babies before they're born?

Despite the technology’s power and capacity to bring about positive change, it has stirred up a large amount of controversy. In November, He Jiankui, a scientist in China, claimed to have created human twin babies with HIV-resistant DNA using CRISPR technology. This resulted in a wave of outrage around the world. The experiment was described as disturbing and unethical by a number of health experts.

“That’s an example of a scientist deciding to do something that most scientists feel is completely unethical right now, just given the nature of technology,” said Dr. Hochstrasser of the incident. “Now is the time that you would start putting laws into place or deciding rules. When you see someone going ahead and doing it, I think it underscores the importance of discussing it ahead of time.”

The Innovative Genomics Institute emphasizes the importance of communication in regards to scientific development. “To quote Spider-Man, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ Any time you have a new technology, there is a potential to use it in positive ways and negative ways,” said Dr. Hochstrasser. “In these situations, it’s really important to talk about it … we’re getting closer … and the science is not slowing down at all, but people don’t really even know this is an issue.”