Genetics between almightiness and nightmare – CRISPR and the future of the human genome

“In the beginning was the Word. Thus it doth say! Here I’m balked! Who’ll help me onward? “ So Goethe makes his protagonist Faust speak in face of the first words in John’s Gospel. They refer, of course, to the eternal Word of God in creating the world and all of life. Modern science, in contrast, hardly talks of God anymore. Physicists largely understand the fundamental language of matter (and casted their insights in a bizarre theory called ‘quantum physics’), and 50 years ago the biologists deciphered the very language of life (and they read its words in the codex of the DNA). Nonetheless for long those ‘words written in the DNA’ have been considered as having been handed down to us as much as the words of the biblical God, indisputably engraved in our genome in many millions of years of continued evolution.

But latest when they succeeded in deciphering the entire human genome in 2003, biologists opened up the door to an entire new technological dimension in which the genetics of man is developing from being the object of scientific research to becoming the subject of technological manipulation(this process had in fact begun a little earlier, when the first techniques of genetic modifications appeared on the biologists’ radar screen in the 1970). The increasing control of nature by man, which has characterized our cultural history so far, is now joined by a second project: the genetic transformation of man himself and his very physical and mental aptitudes and abilities. And it has recently become apparent that this process is about to accelerate massively with CRISPR. Concretely, a scenario is starting to unfold which so far has become reality only in science fiction movies and which has the potential to cause nightmare not only for hard core opponents of genetic engineering.

It does not occur often that renowned scientists publish manifestos in prestigious scientific journals, Last year, however,a group of leading biologists launched a public appeal, triggered by a recently discovered revolutionary new technological method in genetic engineering, which gave rise to an incredibly fast and efficient manipulation of DNA. Specifically, the biologists were referring to a method of‘genome editing’ with the help of a technique that bears the difficult name “CRISPR/Cas9′ and which since 2013 allows a much more precise manipulation of the genome of living organisms compared to what had previously been possible (CRISPR thereby stands for“Clustered Regulatory Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats“ and describes a particular gene sequence, while Cas9 is a protein encoded thereby). Will genetic engineering enable us to treat previously incurable genetic diseases soon? Will it even allow us to boosthuman traits such as beauty and intelligence? Could we turn entire ecosystems upside down by manipulating or even eradicating certain species? Or could we maybe even synthesize whole genomes and create living organisms – and at last also human beings – with entirely new characteristics?Indeed, with CRISP/Cas9 such scenarios could become reality much faster than even the most optimistic of the genetic engineers deemed possible just a few years ago. Rarely ever has a genetic engineering method become that quickly subject of public discussion.

In the scientific community CISPR/Cas9is already regarded as the main medical breakthrough of this century. This new technique allows genes to be precisely replaced, changed, or removed – in a fast, accurate and very cheap manner, whether in plant, animal, or human cells.What used to take weeks, months, or even years and was subject to many errors can now with CISPRbe achieved with very high accuracy in days or even hours. Because the new technology is so easy to handle,it could become available to each and every genetic laboratory, soon even to high school classes. Every person with some basic knowledge in molecular biology will then be able to alter genomes and thus manipulate entire forms of life. Next to previously unimaginably powerful applications in plant and animal breeding a modification or even redesign of man’s molecular genetic basis moves into the realm of possibility, a genetic reconfiguration of ourselves, in which our physical and intellectual abilities are broadly optimized which will enablehumansto reach new, previously unreached mental, intellectual or physical abilities. Genetics can already make mice significantly more intelligent. How long will it take until this is also possible for humans? Does humanity already in the near term future alter its biological properties and thus determine nothing less but its very further evolution?

But can we really want that parents decide on the detailed characteristics of their offspring? And what would it mean if genetically enhanced people will be superior in their cognitive or physical skills to those that obtained their gene mix according to a millions of years old random process? Are we willing to discharge the ethical conflicts that may arise when some of us take the path of a genetic or neurobiological redesign and others do not? At what point will the manipulation of people and their hereditary factors violate human dignity? Where do we have to place a stop sign “so far and no further”? What constitutes a possible ‘ethical dam’against such a development, and would any such barrier have any lasting strength?

Although only a very few of us are able to penetrate into the complexities of today’s scientific disciplines, we need to ensure that the problems of science and its technological potential are accessible to broad public debate. The scientific basis of many potential future miraculous technologies are already being laid out in the research labs all over the world. As the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt writesin his famous play The Physicistsin 1961: “The content of physics concerns the physicist, its impact concerns all people.” And here we encounter a mighty backlog: All too often scientific discoveries undermine the radar screen of public attention. Meanwhile the scientific and technological progress possesses such a rapid and complex dynamics that it threatens to not only escape the intellectual, but increasingly also the ethical horizon of most people. “Secret meeting” among leading geneticists (as well as lawyers and entrepreneur) around such critical issues as the future possibilities to synthesize the human genome, as we recently (in May 2016) saw organized at Harvard University, is anything but helpful here. It is amazing how little of physics, chemistry or biology is talked about, when journalists aim to outline the world dynamics and important social developments to us. This is particular distracting, as the interplay of our future everyday life and the scientific-technological progress taking place in front of our eyes, is by far more exciting than for example the details of the annual rendezvous of a self-proclaimed world’s elite in Davos.

In the conflicting field between the developmental moment of scientific and technological progress and the dynamics of global problems we will in the coming decades with high probability reach a point at which the rules of human life on this planet will change fundamentally. Future technological advances could thereby transform human life and civilization in ways still unimaginable to us today. Are we and the coming generation prepared for this?

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