Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] The dangers of genetic engineering

Sars-CoV-2 may not have been intentionally engineered, but the world stares at a crisis.
By IASToppers
September 22, 2020

Contents

  • Introduction
  • How a genome editing can take place in laboratory?
  • Concerns over careless gene editing
    • Previous efforts
    • Concern over CRISPR Technology
  • Way Forward
  • Conclusion

The dangers of genetic engineering

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Introduction

  • US President has said that Covid-19 either was intentionally engineered or resulted from a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.
  • Covid-19 has brought India’s economy to its knees even as it left China practically unscathed. This has undoubtedly brought home to China that biological pathogens can be as destructive as nuclear missiles — and have almost no geopolitical repercussions.

How a genome editing can take place in laboratory?

  • To start with, a lab would need to obtain the genetic information of viruses.
  • The first genetic sequencing of a bacterium, Escherichia coli, was in the 1990s, which took weeks of effort and tens of millions of dollars. Today, such sequencing costs about $1,000 in the US and can be done in hours.
  • The next step in engineering a virus is to modify the genome of the existing pathogen to change its effects.
  • One technology in particular makes it easy. Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) gene editing, developed only a few years ago, deploys the same natural mechanism that bacteria use to trim pieces of genetic information from one genome and insert it into another.
  • This mechanism, which bacteria developed over millennia to defend themselves from viruses, has been turned into a cheap, simple, quick way to edit the DNA of any organism in the lab.
  • To set up a CRISPR editing capability, the experimenter need only order a fragment of ribonucleic acid (RNA) and purchase off-the-shelf chemicals and enzymes on the Internet. Because it’s so cheap and easy to use, thousands of scientists all over the world are experimenting with CRISPR-based gene editing projects. Very little of this research is limited by regulations.

Concerns over careless gene editing

Previous efforts

  • In 2014, Chinese scientists announced they had successfully produced monkeys that had been genetically modified at the embryonic stage.
  • In April 2015, another group of researchers in China published a paper detailing the first-ever effort to edit the genes of a human embryo. The attempt failed, but it shocked the world: This wasn’t supposed to happen so soon.
  • In April 2016, another group of Chinese researchers reported having succeeded in modifying the genome of a human embryo not brought to term, to make it resistant to HIV infection.
  • In November 2018, Chinese researcher announced that they had created the first “CRISPR babies” — infants whose genomes had been edited before birth. There was a global uproar, and this led the Chinese authorities to jail him.

Concern over CRISPR Technology

  • Using DNA-manipulation methods, researchers have demonstrated that they can recreate deadly viruses such as that of smallpox, which took humanity decades to eradicate.
  • In 2017, a research team in Canada created from scratch an extinct relative of smallpox, horsepox. This took six months only.
  • Once the researchers introduced it into cells infected by another type of poxvirus, the cells began to produce infectious particles.
  • Horsepox is not known to harm humans, but could be used to recreate smallpox, for a fraction of the cost the Canada researchers expended, if edited with CRISPR.

Way Forward

  • There should have been international treaties to prevent the use of CRISPR for gene-editing humans or animals.
  • Governments should have placed restrictions on labs doing the type of research that the University of Alberta and Wuhan Institute of Virology (among others) did.

Conclusion

  • Genetic engineering could well be the cause of the next pandemic — and India needs to be as prepared for this.
  • Particularly, the gene editing technology CRISPR has prompted both breathless predictions of medical breakthroughs and warnings of apocalypse.
  • However, CRISPR isn’t the only genetic technology that we need to worry about. A broader field, “synthetic biology”, is making the tools for genetic engineering widely available.
  • Moreover, the technologies have democratised to such a degree that any country can engineer viruses.
  • The only solution, now, is to accelerate the good side of these technologies and build bio-defenses.
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