When I was a child, the biggest perceived threat to our long-term existence as a species was the bomb. While we certainly cannot call that ‘the good ol’ days’, the number and types of threats today to the future of life on Earth have proliferated far beyond the spread of nuclear technology worldwide.

Take gene manipulation. It’s been around for a while now. But scientists around the world have agreed on a moratorium against manipulating human germ cells or embryos. That’s because the technology is not yet ready for prime time – despite recent advances, including the new technique called CRISPR/Cas9, developed by Jennifer Doudna, a scientist at UC Berkeley.

Then there are the ethical questions to consider – the possibility for mistakes that could proliferate down through the generations, permanently altering the human genetic blueprint. And we can only imagine the unintended consequences of ‘designer babies.’

So, there we are – on the horns of another dilemma: Scientists could possibly wipe out disease by editing DNA. But they could also wipe out genetic diversity.

“The application of the technology needs to be on-hold pending a broader societal discussion of the scientific and ethical issues surrounding such use,” Doudna said. But we all know what an ‘iffy’ proposition self-control can be. And now scientists at Sun Yat-sen University in China have definitively proven that ‘Just Say No!’ was never really a viable deterrent.

In a recent issue of Protein & Cell, scientists at China’s Sun Yat-sen University announced that they have done what scientists around the world have all agreed should not be done: They have genetically modified human embryos.

Junjiu Huang and his colleagues at the university in Guangzhou, China experimented on 86 early stage, non-viable human embryos. In 28 of these embryos, they achieved their goal. They edited the gene known as HBB, which is responsible for an often-fatal blood disorder.

However, their experiment was not an unmitigated success. There were unintended mutations in the embryos’ DNA resulting from the gene editing, leading the scientists to conclude that: “Taken together, our data underscore the need to more comprehensively understand the mechanisms of CRISPR/Cas9-mediated genome editing in human cells, and support the notion that clinical applications of the CRISPR system may be premature at this stage.”

The voices of ‘we told you so’ can be heard from all quarters: “No researcher should have the moral warrant to flout the globally widespread policy agreement against modifying the human germ line,” said Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society. “This paper demonstrates the enormous safety risks that any such attempt would entail, and underlines the urgency of working to forestall other such efforts. The social dangers of creating genetically modified human beings cannot be overstated.”

But despite the wisdom in all the warning voices and hand wringing, there is every indication that the experiments will proceed in China. And once they achieve success, then it’s anybody’s guess what will happen next. The temptation to go where none have gone before – and the drive to be first among peers and among nations – is a powerful force for which moral resolve is really no match.

News summary by Laurel Airica

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