School of Athens discusses Issues Regarding Genomics

The School of Athens is a pupil-led academic society that challenges pupils to present and defend their thoughts in a supportive group of peers. More information is available on our School Societies.

This week’s presentation and discussion was led by year 12 pupil, Benedict, whose well-researched and informative presentation raised a lot of issues that everyone was able to relate to. Below is a summary of Benedict’s presentation and highlights from the audience’s many questions.

Issues regarding genomics: Regulation, Risks, Designer Babies and Eugenics

So what is genomics? Genomics is an interdisciplinary field of biology, focusing on the structure function, evolution, mapping and editing of genomes. The field of genomics is quite controversial despite the vast majority of genomics consisting of research, which allows scientists to accurately understand how organisms function. However, gene editing – while a small part of genomics – is a very controversial topic and overshadows the whole field by quite a bit and is what we’ll be talking about quite a lot today.

So what is gene editing? Gene editing is the alteration of an organism’s genetic material by inserting, replacing or deleting a DNA sequence. This is typically performed with the aim of improving some characteristics of the organism or even correcting genetic disorders. Genetic editing requires the use of complex software and modern scientific technologies, which can insert a place or delete DNA sequences.

The genetic modification of humans is still relatively new and research is often impeded due to 96% of countries implementing strict laws or bans regarding research projects that focus on the genetic modification of humans. Genetic editing comes with many scientific risks such as the creation of major deformities and even disrupting cell specificity. It’s not exactly known why some of these dangers occur, which is why many individuals want genetic editing to be held in obeyance until it’s fully understood.

The main societal risk that stems from gene editing is eugenics and the possible creation of designer babies. Many fear that through the use of genetic editing, eugenicists could eradicate certain races solely because of the racial beliefs. Whilst it’s currently unknown of this could be achieved scientifically the fear of a Hitler-esque figure using the technology for this purpose remains active. Designer babies are frequently linked with the idea of eugenics and are quite literally babies whose genetic attributes are selected by their parents. These attributes could range from eyes and hair colour to height, possibly intelligence, and even athleticism. Similarly to eugenics, there is currently not enough known about embryonic gene editing to determine whether this is possible or not. Despite this many worry that if it was possible, access would be limited via cost and only affluent elites could have the perfect baby.

Highlights from the Post Presentation Audience Discussion, Questions and Thoughts

What, what would you say is the major benefit of gene editing?

There’s quite a lot. For example, you could theoretically eradicate world hunger. For example, there were fish in America which recently underwent gene editing where they took a gene from alligators, which is like an anti-inflammatory gene that fights off infections, they put it into the fish, which led to a two to five times increase in the survival rate of the fish that caught a disease that was killing them. In another example, a scientist inserted something called the SRY gene into female calves which led to all of them turning out to be males when they were born. That’s interesting because males, bulls, grow faster and also produce a larger yield of meat. So by genetically editing a vast majority of them to be bulls, you’ll get more meat produced from the same amount of cattle which increases the amount of food

Why do you think there’s been this completely strict ban on experimentation on humans? There are some very cruel diseases out there that could possibly be treated with gene editing.

I think part of it has to do with people not feeling comfortable with effectively playing God. Another part of it is to do with the risks where we don’t know why things are going wrong and people don’t want to risk that.
There’s a Chinese scientist who edited the genes of two twin girls who were born in 2016; they’re completely immune to HIV and aids. And if something like that was more mainstream, it could fall into the wrong hands, for example, a terrorist organization. If they were smart enough to figure out how to use this technology successfully, they could create batches of soldiers, which for example, run on less hours of sleep, required less calories, so overall, much more efficient killing machines.

What do you think about the feelings of the person that was actually gene edited? At the moment everybody thinks of themselves as basically the genes of my parents mixed together.

Certainly it could lead to feelings of, ‘why didn’t you edit this part of me?’ But, to some extent there are already designer babies out there. If you look at sperm donors a lot of people selecting a sperm donor are able to choose, for example, the height of the donor. People even look for where the donor studied. Someone that studied at a top university is more likely to be picked as a sperm donor than someone that didn’t go to university.

What would you say is the future of gene editing? Do you think there will be much progress in the next couple of years?

I think one of the major changes is how it can be used to combat global warming. There’s a company in Denmark that can take the bioluminescent gene from Algae and put it into trees. By doing that you can light up an entire city with these trees which gets rid of the need for street lamps. Street lamps use energy which at the moment is produced the majority of the time from fossil fuels, which obviously releases a large amount of CO2 into the atmosphere.

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