The possibility of rewriting the genome of an organism, or even of an entire species, has long been the stuff of science fiction. But with the development of CRISPR (which stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”), a method for editing DNA far more precisely and efficiently than was possible with older technologies, fiction has edged closer to reality. CRISPR exploits an ancient system that allows bacteria to acquire immunity from viruses. It uses an enzyme called Cas9 to cut strands of DNA at precisely targeted locations, allowing researchers to insert new genetic material into the gap.
CRISPR promises to revolutionize gene editing, which comprises two distinct but related fields. The first involves a technique to modify inherited genes in nonhuman organisms in order to spread a trait throughout a population, using a process known as a gene drive. The other involves editing the human genome, either in normal body cells (known as somatic cells) or in the germline, the cells that pass genes down to offspring.
The advances made possible by CRISPR could bring vast benefits to society, but the technology also poses risks. An out-of-control gene drive could drastically alter or even threaten a species. And editing the human genome raises risks both for individuals and for society as a whole. To head off those dangers, governments and scientific institutions will have to respond by establishing standards that both enable promising research to go forward and reassure the public that the work is being conducted responsibly. Yet especially when the science is at such an early stage, there is a risk that governments will do too much rather than too little. To avoid that problem, the global scientific and biological ethics communities must take the lead, designing standards and procedures that reduce the dangers of these powerful new technologies without forgoing the benefits.
The goal of a gene drive is to spread or suppress certain genes in a wild population of organisms. It works by exploiting
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