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Scientists Can Now Genetically Alter Embryos But Is That Even Legal?

Many expecting parents go through genetic testing during the early stages of pregnancy to check for potential issues. But imagine, instead, if you could undergo genetic repair to an embryo, preventing these diseases from even being a possibility. An increasingly popular genome editing technique could make this kind of DNA manipulation possible in the near future, to the point where international scientists are discussing if and when such techniques should be allowed.

Earlier this month, the journal Nature looked into the current legal status of CRISPR/Cas9 technology — a technique that promises to make genetic engineering about as simple as editing HTML. The initial appeal of the technology is the ability to alter the mutations responsible for heritable diseases, but there’s no telling what the future could unveil. “We have to consider that CRISPR can also be used for enhancements … ‘designer humans,’ if you will,” co-inventor of the technology Jennifer Doudna PhD says in her Ted Talk. Specifically, this technology also unlocks the possibility to add improvements like stronger bones, higher IQ, or custom eye color.

Anyone familiar with the X-Men knows that having different genetic classes gets tricky real quick, and misuse of the CRISPR technology could have ghastly consequences on otherwise healthy DNA, so strict laws are imperative to ensure it gets used wisely around the world. Doudna — who stands to make some walking around money on this thing (to say nothing of potentially being the mother of a superhuman race) — is as excited about the tech as anyone, but she warns the world to calm down before allowing tests on humans, establish responsible laws, and observe the plants and animals that have already been genetically altered in the meantime. Nature looked at the legal status of these types of procedures in “12 countries with histories of well-funded biological research” and found that, for much of the world, the laws could be described as ambiguous.There’s probably no consensus yet on how to handle the technology legally because there’s no consensus on what the technology has the potential to do. One scientist shared similar sentiments to Doudna’s with Nature — that, regardless of the legal issues behind it, the scientific community needs to realize these procedures should be avoided in humans for the moment because, for lack of a better pun, the technology is still too much in its infancy. “Now is not the time to do human-embryo manipulation,” said Guoping Feng, a neuroscientist at MIT. “If we do the wrong thing, we can send the wrong message to the public — and then the public will not support scientific research anymore.” Remember Dolly the cloned sheep who was euthanized halfway through her life expectancy after suffering from severe arthritis and lung disease? Nothing wrong with letting artichokes storm the beach on CRISPR technology for a while.