Genetics, or the scientific study of genes and genetic variation, is a complex and fascinating branch of biology.
To this day, efforts are being made to understand the intricacies of the human genome better. Many believe these efforts will lead to breakthroughs as it relates to treating genetic disorders.
Advancements in gene editing, or gene engineering, have been leading these efforts. However, the advances in gene editing have also brought up ethical issues concerning designer genes.
But why are gene manipulation and modifications so controversial? Let’s take a closer look.
The Complexity of Genes
The study of genetics gained traction in the mid to late 1800s, thanks largely to the theory of evolution proposed by Charles Darwin. Today, scientists believe that the human body contains around 20,000 different genes.
The endeavor to better understand the human genome, or sets of genes, continues to this day, carried along by the efforts of the Human Genome Project.
This project has promising implications as it relates to better understanding and potentially treating genetic disorders and conditions. Thanks to gene editing technology, advancements in these areas have already been made, such as gene therapy.
Even with the advances in research and technology, many believe we are still only scratching the surface related to our understanding of genes and their role in living organisms.
The Role of Genes
We may not understand the role of genes definitively, but we do understand them to an extent. Particularly their hereditary role. All living organisms pass down genetic information from parent to offspring. This is known as inheritance.
In human beings, we inherit one set of genes from our father and one set from our mother. Together these make up our genotype.
Our actual, observable genetic traits are known as our phenotype. These determine how we look — e.g., eye and hair color, height, etc.
What makes a gene?
Genes are arranged on cellular structures known as chromosomes. Structurally, these chromosomes have centromeres and telomeres, both of which have a role to play during cellular division.
Chromosomes are composed of both proteins and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), where the actual genetic information is encoded. Only a portion of a DNA molecule corresponds to a single gene.
Genetic Engineering and Designer Genes
While genetic engineering, or gene editing, was imagined in theory for decades, it didn’t emerge in practice until the 1980s and 1990s. In short, genetic engineering allows scientists to change, alter, and manipulate the DNA of some organisms.
Today, the most widely used and most advanced gene-editing tool is known as CRISPR, which stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.”
This technology allows scientists to make specific edits to the DNA by making “cuts” at specific points along the DNA sequence using enzymes known as engineered nucleases.
These enzymes work like molecular scissors to cut DNA at the desired point of the genome. Scientists can remove, add, or replace the DNA where the break or cut was made.
What Are Designer Genes?
The use of gene editing falls into two categories: Scientific research and disease treatment. From a research standpoint, gene editing allows scientists to better understand organisms, particularly the link between genetics and disease.
Gene therapy was born out of this research. Gene therapy treats certain diseases by altering a person’s genetic material at certain points along the DNA sequence. In effect, it replaces defective genes with healthy ones (somatic therapy).
Designer genes can simply refer to a gene that is modified or created through genetic engineering. In theory, genetic engineering could be used to alter or change the genome of any living organism.
This is already done in biotechnology, where certain crops are genetically-modified in order to produce greater yields and withstand environmental factors.
But the issues and debate surrounding designer genes go well beyond the modification of soybeans or corn. The ethical concerns rest on the use of genetic engineering in editing or “designing” within the human genome.
Where Science Meets Ethics
The ethical controversy is most pronounced in germline gene therapy, where changes are made to the DNA in reproductive cells. It is in this conversation where the term “designer babies” was born.
While proponents of germline gene therapy propose that it could enable the correction of disease-causing mutations and genetic disorders in the human genome, opponents believe it is too unpredictable — and unethical.
Ethical and Moral Objections to Gene Design
Those with ethical concerns believe this “improvement” on genetics could eventually lead to selecting particular physical characteristics – e.g., a form of eugenics.
Furthermore, many believe widespread germline gene therapy and gene design could make society less accepting of people who are different or who have certain genetic disorders.
Also, gene editing for reproductive or design purposes must contend with moral and religious objections regarding the use of human embryos for research.
Currently, the National Institute of Health does not fund the use of gene editing in human embryos.
Genetics is the complex study of genes and genetic variations. Over the past four decades, gene editing technologies have emerged to offer promising insights into the human genome.
One of the biggest implications has been in the area of gene therapy to treat certain genetic disorders. However, the use of genetic engineering has also opened the door of concern for some.
Designer genes could have positive implications for correcting genetic disorders, but the ethical controversy over the practice is far from over.