Editing human embryos with CRISPR is moving ahead – now’s the time to work out the ethics

Jessica Berg in Phys.org:

1-editinghumanThe announcement by researchers in Portland, Oregon that they've successfully modified the genetic material of a human embryo took some people by surprise.

With headlines referring to "groundbreaking" research and "designer babies," you might wonder what the scientists actually accomplished. This was a big step forward, but hardly unexpected. As this kind of work proceeds, it continues to raise questions about ethical issues and how we should we react.

For a number of years now we have had the ability to alter genetic material in a cell, using a technique called CRISPR.

The DNA that makes up our genome comprises long sequences of base pairs, each base indicated by one of four letters. These letters form a genetic alphabet, and the "words" or "sentences" created from a particular order of letters are the genes that determine our characteristics.

Sometimes words can be "misspelled" or sentences slightly garbled, resulting in a disease or disorder. Genetic engineering is designed to correct those mistakes. CRISPR is a tool that enables scientists to target a specific area of a gene, working like the search-and-replace function in Microsoft Word, to remove a section and insert the "correct" sequence.

In the last decade, CRISPR has been the primary tool for those seeking to modify genes – human and otherwise. Among other things, it has been used in experiments to make mosquitoes resistant to malaria, genetically modify plants to be resistant to disease, explore the possibility of engineered pets and livestock, and potentially treat some human diseases (including HIV, hemophilia and leukemia).

More here.