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What is Gene Editing and Why Should You Care?

A few weeks ago, a group of genetic experts met in Washington, D.C. to discuss the state of “gene-editing” technologies and the ethics surrounding their use. The conference — called the “International Summit on Human Gene Editing” — touched on all sorts of issues, but one of the main purposes of the summit was to determine how governments and independent institutions should proceed when it comes to research related to gene editing.

At the end of the summit, a statement was released outlining their conclusions and I’d recommend anyone interested in this field give it a read — it’s pretty short. More to the point though, news about this conference got me thinking about the subject and I realized that gene editing is something that many people probably don’t know a whole lot about.

With that in mind, I set out to answer the question “what is gene editing and why should anyone care?”

What is Gene Editing?

The simplest explanation of gene editing is that it is the process of modifying genes. From your high school biology course, you may vaguely recall the definition of a gene as something like this:

Genes are stretches of DNA that have the potential to create a tool or a characteristic – such as red colour in the pea flower.

Note: for a more detailed — and quite good — explanation of what a “gene” is, check out the page where this quote was sourced.

In other words, genes are the blue-print of an organism and play a major role in determining the organism’s characteristics. How an organism behaves, what it looks like, and how it grows are all at least partially determined by the genetic make-up of the organism.

Building on this knowledge, gene editing is a cutting-edge scientific process that aims to modify genes in order to shape or re-shape the characteristics controlled by that gene.

For example, let’s say a sequence of genes is known to control the color of a flower. By modifying those specific genes, we could change the color of the flower to be pretty much whatever color we’d like. More specifically, we’d change the “blue print” so that when the flower grows — or continues growing — the new areas of growth would be that color. If done correctly, the other aspects of the flower would remain unchanged.

Of course, flowers aren’t the only organism that could be modified genetically. In fact, every known form of life has DNA and just about every aspect of an organism is at least partially determined by genetics in one way or another. These two facts taken together lead to the pretty surreal conclusion that nearly every aspect of every living thing can potentially be modified through the use of gene editing.

What’s The Potential Impact of Gene Editing On Society?

Given the above information, it follows that the potential impact of gene editing on society is quite large. Taken to the extreme, gene editing could allow us to manipulate any organism we’d like, for nearly whatever purposes we’d like. Whether you wanted to make miniature elephants the size of house cats, fluorescent orange grass, or dogs with two tails — your wish could likely be fulfilled using gene editing.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons why a future without any restrictions on the use of gene editing is unlikely and undesirable.

For one thing, editing genes is a complicated process and there’s still a lot we’ll need to learn before we’ll be able to confidently edit genes on anything but a small scale.

For another, editing genes without fully understanding the consequences could harm the organism, harm the environment, the food chain, or future offspring from that organism, which is precisely why international summits have been taking place to identify how lightly we — as a society — need to tread when researching and experimenting in this area.

With all of that in mind, however, it’s important to not let the potential downsides completely dominate the conversation about whether or not we should pursue gene editing research — especially since the potential upsides are so, so good.

To understand just how good, consider that Wikipedia currently lists 1311 known genetic disorders in humans. Now consider that the list includes many disorders that are life-threatening or at least life-altering, including:

  • Autism
  • Breast cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Down syndrome
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Prostate cancer
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Skin cancer
  • Spinal muscular atrophy

And many, many others. See this list from Genome.gov for more information.

Just to be perfectly clear, this list outlines all of the disorders that are known to have been caused by a gene abnormality. So, these disorders appear when a gene mutates and is no longer properly formed. In other words, the gene has been changed, so it no longer performs its usual function properly. Gene editing makes the obvious solution to this problem possible: edit the gene and change it back to its normal form.

So what would the impact of that really be? Well, imagine what this would mean for, say, skin cancer patients and their families. Imagine the skin cancer patient’s reaction when they’re told that we’re now able to effectively manipulate the genes responsible for the disorder and eradicate the issue at its source.

Now, take that same scenario but apply it to all genetic disorders.  THIS is the future that gene editing research is leading us towards.

Conclusion

As is the case with most things in life, the true impact of gene editing on the future will likely fall short of being a “silver bullet” cure. It’s entirely possible that some genetic disorders are just too complicated to unravel or too risky to treat using this method. Nevertheless, gene editing is looking more and more like it could be the key to finally overcoming many of the disorders that continue to wreak havoc on people’s lives and cause so much pain and suffering all around the world.

For that reason, I couldn’t be more excited about the potential that this research holds. Even if it only manages to live up to a small fraction of its full potential, it could still improve the quality of life of millions upon millions of people over the long run.

So, why should anyone care about gene editing?

It’s simple: the odds are looking pretty good that the day will come where gene editing technology saves your life or the life of someone you love.

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