The Debate Over Bioengineering: CRISPR

Andrew Kim, Staff Writer

“ April O’Neil: What are you?

Leonardo: Well, miss, we’re ninjas.

Raphael: We’re mutants!

Donatello: Technically, we’re turtles.

Michelangelo: And we’re teenagers. But we can have adult conversations.

April O’Neil: So, you’re… Ninja Mutant Turtle Teenagers?

Donatello: When you put it like that, it sounds ridiculous! ”

The famed “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” that, over the span of 3 decades, so many have come to love, is a story about biological mutations that occur on turtles that cause them to grow human-like features. In the 1990s, the idea of changing an organism’s characteristics was most definitely seen, as Donatello puts it, ridiculous, just like the idea of humans traveling outside of our galaxy. Yet 30 years later, here we are with CRISPR: the key to bioengineering, which allows us to change the DNA of any organism we choose, including ourselves. This revolutionary technology was initially discovered in the late 1990s and developed further into 2012 where it has made “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” go from a sure impossibility to a near-future reality.

Bioengineering is a major part of our world today, especially in the agricultural field. Genetically modified foods (G.M.O.) have provided lots of food surpluses for an exponentially growing world population. Using CRISPR to edit the genomes of crops, scientists can add pest-resistant and drought-resistant characteristics to crops to produce bigger yields and obtain the ability to farm in more locations. This ability to bioengineer crops has allowed for the worldwide food crisis to be somewhat alleviated and has been seen to be better for the environment, with a lower need for chemical fertilizers and the sole use of water to maintain the crops. CRISPR has also helped the environment with the genetic editing of bacteria that could digest plastic and help with trash issues throughout the world. It can also be applied to the medical field, where new bioengineered viruses are already in testing to fight cancer at its source which is much safer than chemotherapy and can be used to treat mental illnesses, HIV, heart disease, and diabetes for generations in a family line. Even new replacement organs can be bioengineered and grown as methods for obtaining more transplants. Senior Zachary Bi believes that CRISPR will greatly benefit “sick patients because genetic diseases can be removed.” CRISPR can also fix possible mutations that may occur during pregnancy such as those from alcohol, which could cause birth defects.

For all the possibilities and benefits CRISPR holds, there are also concerns with this new technology. IHS Sophomore Ian Kim gives his opinion on CRISPR stating how he believes that “governments will try to weaponize CRISPR and that they are untrustworthy.” As history has shown, with any revolutionizing technology, governments have always managed to find a way to incorporate it into the military. CRISPR holds the power to be the most revolutionizing technology in the past century, easily surpassing the cell phone and the internet, yet it could also be one of the most destructive since the invention of nuclear bombs. Deadly viruses could be bioengineered to either recreate old viruses or modify them to create even deadlier diseases. These new diseases could be released into the world, causing an even worse pandemic than COVID-19 with higher deadliness and contagiousness. As reported by the American Security Project, Alan Shaffer, the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, said in a recent testimony to Congress that “science is revealing the means to weaponize biology and chemistry in ways that were purely theoretical only 10 years ago.” With the world still going through the effects of COVID-19, the effects of deadlier viruses are scary to even think about, but it is still a concerning possibility with CRISPR being so accessible and easy to use. Freshman Elika Wang shares these concerns saying how the dangers of CRISPR and the possibility of biological warfare are “highly possible” and that “anyone has the motivation to do the wrong thing.” According to NPR news, new debates over CRISPR’s ethical concerns have flared up as well with He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, allegedly using CRISPR on two human fetuses in 2018 causing both outrage and compliments from other scientists and countries over such a step taken by the Chinese government. China has also been cited for its eagerness in applying biotechnology to its military. According to a Jamestown article on China’s military biotech frontier, it sources a doctoral dissertation, published in 2016, which envisioned the use of CRISPR for “human performance enhancement technologies” that could be utilized to boost personnel combat effectiveness. China is not the only country willing to use CRISPR on humans with several other countries expressing interest not only in a militaristic field but also in a new industry: beauty.

Since the modern invention of plastic surgery in the 1970s, tens of millions of people have undergone the procedure. This popular desire to alter parts of one’s appearance can set up a large market for a new CRISPR-based beauty industry in the future. This possible industry has the potential to become a major part of the world, yet it also brings many ethical concerns. For the success of this industry, Wang believes that if CRISPR “gathers the public’s approval[,] then it will probably develop quickly.” However, Bi and Kim both held strong opinions against such an industry with Kim stating that “changing the ways babies look, act, and behave is unethical because it is not natural, and it could give unfair advantages to certain people that can afford it.” As with all industries, there will always be controversy, but CRISPR holds much more responsibility, and the consequences of what governments and the public choose could be catastrophic or humanity-saving. Despite this, Bi is “excited for this new world because it allows for more opportunities for jobs and a better economy” and junior Katie Cheng states that she would also be excited to “become a consumer of such an industry.”

Although we may never get the chance to meet the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or create some ridiculous pets, CRISPR will definitely become a major part of our world in the future, but the question is: are we ready? Weighing both CRISPR’s possible massive benefits and fatal consequences, that question is for us to decide how we want to shape our world. Or, some of us could, as Cheng states, “[not] care” and just live our lives as high schoolers today.