Educational Resources Lets Talk Science Challenge participants

 An artist’s interpretation of gene editing technology

An artist’s interpretation of gene editing technology (a_crotty, iStockPhoto)

STEM in Context

Genome Editing

Behnoush Hassanzadeh

Summary

Medical biotechnology allows scientists to make changes to the genomes of living things. What are the pros and cons of having access to techniques like these?

What if I told you that scientists have the ability to change certain traits in an unborn child? That they could change the colour of that child’s eyes? Or eliminate the chances of them developing a genetic disease before they are born? 

Genome editing, also called gene editing, is the modification of genes. It is a field of genetics that’s growing quickly. Genome editing could make these things possible… if people want them to be. 

You may have heard about CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). This is a gene editing technique discovered in 2012. Scientists found a way to make bacteria edit genes for us. Before then, gene editing was very expensive and hard to do. CRISPR has made gene editing much easier. It has got a lot of scientists talking about what we could do, how we should do it, and whether we should do it in the first place!  

Scientists already edit plant genes to make plants more nutritious for the humans that eat them. Scientists also use CRISPR to edit animal genes so that the animals are better able to resist diseases. And the techniques that work on animals can also be used on humans. They can be used to  help with many health problems, most obviously diseases that are caused by genetic problems. 

A technique called germline editing is more controversial. Germline editing is the editing of reproductive cells. In humans, these are sperm and eggs.  With this type of editing, scientists could make changes to humans that would be passed on to their children.  This would mean that certain genetic diseases could eventually be wiped out altogether.

What is Gene Editing and How Does it Work? (2016) by the Wellcome Trust (4:22 min.).

But gene editing remains an extremely controversial topic. That’s because it raises some ethical concerns.

Gene editing could get rid of diseases that run in the family. But they could also change other features like hair colour, eye colour, or height. They could create a child based on the wishes of the parents-to-be. And this is a major concern for many people involved in the field.

Some other concerns that people have about gene editing are:

  • There is a high chance of errors occurring during the gene editing process. Errors can have devastating consequences. For example, a researcher can accidentally delete a gene. This can lead to developmental defects in the fetus. Any errors in germline editing could be passed on from generation to generation.
  • Once people have access to the technology, it might be hard to control what it’s used for. This could create a slippery slope. Parents-to-be might use the technology in ways that are considered sexist or racist. For example, if parents can choose their baby’s sex, is this a way of allowing sexism? If parents can choose physical traits that are more common in races they find more attractive, is this a form of racism?
  • This technology could be extremely costly. This means that only some people will be able to afford it. 

However, there are arguments on the other side of these concerns, too.

How do scientists address the issues of safety and chances of error? Scientists state that nothing in the world of experimental science is 100% safe. The question is not “Is it safe?” Instead, it’s “Is it safe enough to be worth pursuing?” In other words, do the benefits outweigh the risks? Remember, gene editing could help scientists diagnose and eliminate diseases. Scientists and the body of government funding the research must agree on their answer to this question.

However, addressing the slippery slope issue seems to be more challenging. What qualifies as a correction of a deficiency? What qualifies as an unnecessary change? There is no clear-cut definition of either of these. So I encourage you, as future scientists, to think about the ethical boundaries and potential consequences of genome editing. Do you think the benefits outweigh the costs?

Did you know? 

As of 2019, Canadian law does not allow scientists to make changes to an unborn child’s genome that can be passed down to that child’s children.
 

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating
  • Do you resemble anyone else in your family? What are some obvious genetic traits you have inherited from your parents? What genetic traits do you share with a sibling? 
  • If you could edit the genes of your future children, would you? What traits might you edit? How would you feel if genome editing solved one problem, but created another problem for your child? 
Connecting and Relating
  • Do you resemble anyone else in your family? What are some obvious genetic traits you have inherited from your parents? What genetic traits do you share with a sibling? 
  • If you could edit the genes of your future children, would you? What traits might you edit? How would you feel if genome editing solved one problem, but created another problem for your child? 
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • How might gene editing techniques benefit you if you were a crop farmer? A livestock farmer?  A dog breeder? Can you think of any challenges they might bring? 
  • Should government-funded health care plans cover the cost of genome editing? Why or why not?
  • Do you think the potential benefits of genome editing outweigh the dangers of inappropriate use of this method?
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • How might gene editing techniques benefit you if you were a crop farmer? A livestock farmer?  A dog breeder? Can you think of any challenges they might bring? 
  • Should government-funded health care plans cover the cost of genome editing? Why or why not?
  • Do you think the potential benefits of genome editing outweigh the dangers of inappropriate use of this method?
Exploring Concepts
  • Why is CRISPR technology revolutionary? 
  • What is germline editing? 
Exploring Concepts
  • Why is CRISPR technology revolutionary? 
  • What is germline editing? 
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • Why might outright governmental bans on scientific studies using genome editing techniques and technologies be unwise? 
  • The introduction of CRISPR technology has been ethically controversial. Can you think of other technologies that have been ethically controversial when they were first introduced? Do you think the use of CRISPR will ever become less controversial?  
  • Do you think there could be a global consensus on the morality of genetic engineering? Why or why not?    
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • Why might outright governmental bans on scientific studies using genome editing techniques and technologies be unwise? 
  • The introduction of CRISPR technology has been ethically controversial. Can you think of other technologies that have been ethically controversial when they were first introduced? Do you think the use of CRISPR will ever become less controversial?  
  • Do you think there could be a global consensus on the morality of genetic engineering? Why or why not?    
Media Literacy
  • CRISPR is relatively new technology. What articles related to CRISPR can you find in online searches or newspapers? Do the articles you find focus on the technology or the issues surrounding the technology? 
Media Literacy
  • CRISPR is relatively new technology. What articles related to CRISPR can you find in online searches or newspapers? Do the articles you find focus on the technology or the issues surrounding the technology? 
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article and video provide support for genetics and biotechnology teaching and learning. These resources can be used for introducing concepts and ethical considerations related to genome editing and CRISPR technology. 
  • After reading the article, students could discuss the pros and cons of genome editing using a Pros & Cons Organizer. Ready-to-use Pros & Cons reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • Students could also look at the issue of genome editing from multiple perspectives using an Issues & Stakeholders learning strategy. After developing different perspectives, the students could conduct a role-play in which individual students present their different perspectives as part of a panel at a genomic conference. Ready-to-use Issues & Stakeholders reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article and video provide support for genetics and biotechnology teaching and learning. These resources can be used for introducing concepts and ethical considerations related to genome editing and CRISPR technology. 
  • After reading the article, students could discuss the pros and cons of genome editing using a Pros & Cons Organizer. Ready-to-use Pros & Cons reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.
  • Students could also look at the issue of genome editing from multiple perspectives using an Issues & Stakeholders learning strategy. After developing different perspectives, the students could conduct a role-play in which individual students present their different perspectives as part of a panel at a genomic conference. Ready-to-use Issues & Stakeholders reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats.

Learn more

The Nature of Things: The Genetic Revolution (2018) -

This CBC documentary (44:08 min.) & accompanying text discuss how technologies like CRISPR are allowing for DNA to be quickly and easily modified, how this can help people, and what possible consequences are.

Genetic Engineering Will Change Everything Forever (2016)

This video (16:03 min.) by Kurzgesagt gives an explanation of genetic engineering and CRISPR followed by a discussion of some future implications.

The First Gene-Edited Babies Are Here, Like It or Not (2018)

Video (7:03 min.) from SciShow News explains the criticism of a Chinese CRISPR experiment to make twin girls immune to HIV.

References

Vasiliou, S., Diamandis, E., et al.. (2016). CRISPR-Cas9 system: opportunities and concerns. Clinical Chemistry, 62(10), 1304-1311. DOI: 10.1373/clinchem.2016.263186