CRISPR for Human Embryos? Diseases, Yes – Designer Babies, No

Creating a race of super soldiers is off the table, too. 


CRISPR-Cas9 is a precise method of gene editing. It can snip a gene out of the DNA sequence –say, a harmful mutation – then add a healthy gene to replace it. This new but exciting technique is being used in clinical trials to treat things like hereditary cancer. It could also be a godsend for certain genetic diseases, such as Huntington’s or Tay-Sachs disease, among others. Experimental studies with cancer and blindness are slated to reap benefits this year.

Despite the great promise this new technique affords, there is controversy surrounding applying it to human embryos. One such concern is creating designer babies. Another is accidentally creating a hereditary disease and allowing it to enter the human genome. This could be passed down from parent to child, dooming future generations. But some fear that stifling regulation suppresses innovation and the march of progress. So, of course, there needs to be balance between regulation and freedom of exploration.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), aware of the growing debate, put together a committee of experts last year to consider the ethical quandaries the technique presents when applied to human embryos. It's just recently released its report, a full 261 pages, which suggests allowing CRISPR to be performed on embryos in certain instances, and barring others. The committee concluded that cures for serious diseases and disabilities should be allowed, especially when conventional medicine offers no “reasonable alternative.” But the advisory panel won’t abide designer babies or the creation of super soldiers.

The committee suggests opening the door a crack, and allowing gene editing on embryos for research on certain diseases.

Richard Hynes co-chaired the committee. He wrote that since the science is flying by at an outrageous clip, we should keep a tight grasp on it for now. “You want to have a good control of what is being done,” he wrote. Chinese scientists have already modified the DNA of five embryos as of 2015, using this technique. Sweden is also conducting advanced experiments, fueling the fear that the US could fall behind.

Many hailed the NAS committee’s move. This framework should allow for more cancer studies and those on genetic diseases, like retinal degeneration, which can lead to blindness. But some say, the guidelines are still too stringent. There are a lot of genetic diseases such as muscular dystrophy, sickle cell anemia, or even Parkinson’s, which may benefit from CRISPR experiments. But the panel fears allowing a technique whose outcome isn’t entirely known.

University of Wisconsin ethicist Alta Charo was a co-chair of the advisory group. She said that although off-label uses, or those which a drug wasn’t intended for, are tolerated with pharmaceuticals commonly, gene editing of embryos would not allow such a practice. What’s more, a social consensus is needed before the gene editing of embryos becomes common practice. “It is essential for public discussions to precede any decisions about whether or how to pursue clinical trials of such applications,” said Charo. “And we need to have them now.”

Some fear that this technique could someday be used to add muscle tissue to a person’s body to make them stronger or faster, or neural manipulation will be performed to reap greater intelligence. Gene editing may even allow for certain anti-aging features to become available. This last one might be allowed as a sort of preventative medicine.

With these guidelines, Charo and colleagues were clear: you can use gene editing to undo illness but not enhance the human body. Some geneticists find the prospect of genetic enhancement “ethically inviolable.” Even so, the technique is not able to perform such feats, yet. “Genome editing to enhance traits or abilities beyond ordinary health raises concerns about whether the benefits can outweigh the risks, and about fairness if available only to some people," Charo said.

This research could create a backlash. Committee members point out the need for a societal consensus on the gene editing of embryos, before it becomes commonplace. 

Should we continue to embrace individuality, or are we destined to edit out everything that makes us unique, creating a race of beautiful, bland, healthy geniuses, and in the end, losing heterogeneity? With it could go innovation, novelty, uniqueness, disruption, and creativity. After all, it is usually the mavericks, the marginalized, and the outliers that revolutionize society. Or would a startling divide be born, between those who could afford gene editing and those who couldn’t?

The philosopher Alan Watts once said that if we reached the point where we could design people, we should make as diverse a group of possible, so to have enormous flexibility. For who knows what kinds of people will best populate the late 21st century and beyond.

These guidelines posit a tight way of allowing the exploration of CRISPR for use in the human genome. Currently, the FDA bars the germline engineering, or gene editing, of human offspring. But the guidelines are meant as a crack of light, showing the way, but also a way of beginning the conversation of how we should proceed.

To learn more about the issues surrounding gene editing, click here: 

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we mine on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.

Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

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Image source: Wikimedia Commons
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