The idea of genome editing is no longer a theoretical concept studied only within the confines of labs and scientific research institutions. In August 2017, scientists reportedly managed to successfully use the genome-editing technique to correct a disease-causing mutation in viable human embryos. This is just one of the many applications of the technique scientists want to use to alter, and ultimately prevent, damaging mutations in plants, animals, and humans.
So how is all of this supposed to work? In essence, genome editing makes it possible to alter the DNA of an organism. By doing this, it is possible to either delete, add, or change genetic materials in certain locations of the DNA. CRISPR-Cas9 is a relatively recent genome-editing technique that holds particular promise at the moment. Compared with previous methods of genome editing, CRISPR-Cas9 has created enthusiasm in the scientific world for its comparable cost, accuracy, and speed of execution.
CRISPR-Cas9 is based on a gene-editing process that naturally occurs in bacteria. When viruses invade the organism, bacteria are able to snap parts of the virus’ DNA. They then use them to create unique DNA segments that help them “remember” the invading virus and closely related ones. These segments are referred to as CRISPR arrays. If the virus invades the organism again, the bacteria deploy the CRISPR arrays to produce RNA segments to target the DNA of the virus. Afterward, the enzyme Cas9 is used to disable the virus by cutting its DNA apart.
Scientists have adopted this mechanism, making use of the DNA’s repair and memory mechanism to add, delete, and alter genetic material.
Though the technology is still in its infancy, its potentially transformative effect is no longer confined to pure theory and speculation. Chinese scientists have already deployed CRISPR-Cas9 to genetically edit several people. Right now, the European Union and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have begun the process of regulating and ultimately permitting the use of CRISPR-Cas9 for initial genomic editing on plants and ultimately, for humans.
CRISPR-Cas9 offers the possibility of tackling diseases that were previously thought of as incurable—in China, a significant portion of those undergoing genome editing treatment did so to combat esophageal cancer, leukemia, and HIV.
In the wake of potentially significant side-effects of the technology, some people might be inclined to reject its introduction. Enthralled by a fear of unknown consequences of using genome editing, they might reject it altogether. While it makes sense to support sensible guidelines for scientists when it comes to such transformative technologies, we should not succumb to a generalized mindset of skepticism towards innovation. Throughout history, human beings have stirred towards scientific progress by a method of continuous trial and error. This is how penicillin got discovered and similarly, how the X-Ray was accidentally discovered by Wilhelm von Roentgen in his Wuerzburg, Germany lab.
If we accept this process of trial and error, of inevitable mistakes on the path towards technological progress, it makes no sense to adopt a default attitude of skepticism. In this context, such an attitude is akin to saying that because mistakes have happened in the past and will likely continue in the future, technological change should be generally met with a dismissing response. This attitude is commonly referred to as the precautionary principle. If one is aware that technological change emerges from uncertainty and constant trials, hurdles and errors along the way should rather lead to the acknowledgment that this is simply all part of the process in the discovery of new ideas.
Instead of falling prey to a default mode of skepticism that undermines discovery and human achievement, we should strive to combine sensible regulations with an aspirational mindset that is open towards new technologies. Such an attitude of permissionless innovation creates social values that hold the constant strife for greater human achievement in high regard instead of dismissing it with a mindset of cynical skepticism. Including such values within the framework of a society is crucial in laying the groundwork on which further technological innovation can flourish.
In that same spirit, please join my Competitive Enterprise Institute colleagues and I this weekend when we celebrate Human Achievement Hour, our annual celebration of innovation and progress.