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Reasons for optimism – Gene-editing

Summary:
Genetic modification has penetrated popular thinking by receiving much publicity, even though some of that has verged on hysteria. Meanwhile, a scientific breakthrough has been achieved that gives equal, if not greater, grounds for optimism. It is the discovery and manipulation of what are called clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, otherwise known as CRISPR. This differs from GM because it involves editing the genes within an organism, rather than introducing those from an alien species. What makes CRISPR gene editing so effective is its precision. Scientists can use it to locate a chosen sequence within the organism’s DNA, and then delete it or modify it by replacing unwanted sequences with desired ones. When fully developed, the technique will enable us to delete

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Genetic modification has penetrated popular thinking by receiving much publicity, even though some of that has verged on hysteria. Meanwhile, a scientific breakthrough has been achieved that gives equal, if not greater, grounds for optimism. It is the discovery and manipulation of what are called clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, otherwise known as CRISPR. This differs from GM because it involves editing the genes within an organism, rather than introducing those from an alien species.

What makes CRISPR gene editing so effective is its precision. Scientists can use it to locate a chosen sequence within the organism’s DNA, and then delete it or modify it by replacing unwanted sequences with desired ones. When fully developed, the technique will enable us to delete the defective genes that lead to genetic diseases, and to replace them by non-defective ones. This opens the prospect of eliminating such conditions as Huntington’s disease, haemophilia, or spina bifida.

It has been used to treat inherited deafness and sickle cell anaemia in mice, and it has the potential to create powerful new antibiotics and antivirals. In theory, though not yet in practice, it could be used to make mosquitoes impervious to malaria, and raise the chances of the altered gene being passed on to 100 percent. As with genetic modification, it could be used to create more nutritious crops, or ones better able to cope with drought.

Concern has been raised about the prospect of “designer babies,” with parents screening our undesirable genetic traits in their offspring, and inserting genes that would lead to better looks or more intellectual potential in the child, even before it was born. These would be subject to ethical controls, but the technique could be used to give every child born the chance to lead a life free from suffering or life-limiting conditions.

The technique is fast, effective and cheap. What might have taken weeks at enormous cost can now be done within hours for perhaps $75. It gives huge cause for optimism that humankind will be less susceptible to the damage and distress that nature might inflict, and better able to take control in order to give people the chance of healthier and better lives.

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