Science's 'Breakthrough of the Year' inspired as much trepidation as hope

Though it has its pros and cons, one thing is true: the controversial 'CRISPR' technology is extraordinary.

Susan Walsh/AP
Nobel laureate David Baltimore of CalTech speaks to reporters at the National Academy of Sciences international summit on the safety and ethics of human gene editing, in Washington, on Tuesday. Organizers of an international summit say a tool to edit human genes is nowhere near ready to attempt in pregnancy but they're calling for more laboratory research with the revolutionary technology. Editing the human genetic code promises to lead to long sought rules for intractable diseases. But it also could be used to alter human heredity, passing genetic alterations to future generations.

A Chinese experiment that successfully altered genes in human embryos – setting off ethical alarms – was this year’s most important scientific breakthrough, says the journal Science.

In its annual list of noteworthy scientific developments, the journal has held up the easy and inexpensive genome-editing technique called CRISPR as the field’s most distinguished accomplishment in 2015. CRISPR beat out the development of an Ebola vaccine and the discovery in South Africa of a new human species, Homo naledi.

With its promise to rewrite human genetic destiny, CRISPR brings technological tinkering right to the source code of physical human identity, raising issues both ethical and philosophical.

It’s been around for several years, but in 2015 CRISPR led to astonishing, and equally controversial, milestones. First was the development of a revolutionary technology called “gene drive,” a technique that stimulates the inheritance of certain genes, potentially allowing selected traits to spread rapidly throughout a population. 

The technology claims the potential to alter organisms’ DNA to stop the spread of persistent illnesses, and to eliminate crop pests and invasive species, such as rats and cane toads, reports The Independent.

But it also has the potential to be used in more sinister ways, as the British newspaper points out, as a terrorist bioweapon, for instance, against people or livestock.

“If we’re right about this, it’s a powerful advance that could make the world a much better place, but only if we use it wisely,” Kevin Esvelt, a gene-drive expert at Harvard Medical School told The Independent.

The same dichotomy applies to the second CRISPR-powered development this year: the first time scientists tweaked the genetic makeup of a non-viable human embryo in a way that would allow the change to be passed to succeeding generations.

Gene editing technology has been heralded as holding the potential to stop inheritable diseases from spreading through generations by editing out bad genes in parents. On the other hand, it could give human beings the power to genetically enhance offspring in ways that could last for generations with unpredictable results, as The Christian Science Monitor has reported.

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