The world’s worst dis­eases and ail­ments may finally have cures.

The life sci­ences recently dis­covered the ability to alter the human genome, the very entity that encodes our humanity, in order to elim­inate disease, muta­tions, and poten­tially engineer the perfect human.

Orig­i­nally iden­tified in the immune systems of single-celled organisms, Clus­tered Reg­u­larly Inter­spaced Palin­dromic Repeats (CRISPR) improve prokaryotes’ defense against phages and viruses by inserting strands of foreign DNA into its own genome. This allows for better, more effective responses against future attacks. However, CRISPR is no longer con­fined to single celled organisms.
Sci­en­tists are now attempting to use CRISPR variants, created and revised in the lab, to edit the genomes of mul­ti­cel­lular organisms in order to remove detri­mental muta­tions.

Recently, researchers used CRISPR tech­nolology to repair a faulty gene in mice that causes Duchenne’s Mus­cular Dys­trophy. By the end of the study, the mice had regained 80 percent of their mus­cular ability.

The power of CRISPR is so great that Director of National Intel­li­gence James Clapper placed its gene-editing method on his list of weapons of mass destruction. Clapper said “its delib­erate or unin­ten­tional misuse might lead to far-reaching… national security impli­ca­tions.”

CRISPR could be used eth­i­cally as an instrument for curing disease. But the power of genomic editing could also tempt sci­en­tists and future parents to use it not only to cure but also to “improve” human beings.

This raises the specter of humanity’s past attempts at eugenics. During the first half of the 20th century, a variety of methods were used to help create genet­i­cally superior humans, including the forced ster­il­ization of more than 60,000 Amer­icans through com­pulsory ster­il­ization laws. Even more were ster­ilized without their knowledge. Nazi Germany’s con­cen­tration camps provide a yet more sobering reminder about pre­vious attempts to “perfect” mankind.

CRISPR offers a much more effi­cient path for those who believe human beings can be improved. Modern-day eugeni­cists parading under the moniker of “tran­shu­manism” believe that improving humanity is not only an option, but a moral duty. In an interview with Vice mag­azine, tran­shu­manist philosopher and writer Zoltan Istvan said CRISPR should be used to “modify the human being to be much stronger and func­tional than it is.” Such hopes may sound benign, but one wonders what might happen when our new race of super-people come into being. What pre­vents forced ster­il­ization, or worse, for those deemed genet­i­cally inferior?

The second danger con­jured by the potential of CRISPR is the threat of the unknown, of med­dling with systems that we do not fully under­stand. CRISPR would be used to per­ma­nently alter individual’s genomes, the long-term effects of which are uncertain. Although the human genome has been mapped, sci­en­tists are far from under­standing the complex func­tions of, and inter­ac­tions between, our genes. Simply wad­dling into the sit­u­ation and mod­i­fying human beings without com­plete under­standing of the con­se­quences might seem insane, but that very thing is hap­pening as you read this article. The United Kingdom recently approved studies that will use CRISPR to edit genes in human embryos.

Sci­en­tists have engi­neered variants of CRISPR tech­nology to target spe­cific loca­tions on a genome, typ­i­cally the location of a mutation. CRISPR variants then carry an endonu­clease, Cas9, to the desired location and remove the mutated gene(s).

Next, a CRISPR-based transport installs a repaired or enhanced set of genes in place of the mutation. The­o­ret­i­cally, with the mutation elim­i­nated, the genome would be able to function flaw­lessly. CRISPR tech­nology has moved from theory to reality.

A paper pub­lished in December 2015 revealed that researchers have reversed the neg­ative effects of Duchenne mus­cular dys­trophy in mature mice. While the mice never regained full function in the affected areas, their dys­trophin pro­duction was mostly restored, allowing them to live rel­a­tively normal lives with minimal effect on their mobility.

These suc­cesses paint a grand picture for the future of CRISPR, which could one day be used to elim­inate genetic dis­eases such as DMD, Down Syn­drome and cancer sus­cep­ti­bil­ities. However, nothing is free and every­thing is far from certain.

Often, when new tech­nologies like CRISPR are developed, man tem­porarily forgets that the uni­verse is not under his control. Regardless of the dams built, anti­dotes made, poisons per­fected and med­i­cines man­u­fac­tured, nature always finds a way to remind man that it is in control, and when it does, the results can be cat­a­strophic. The dangers asso­ciated with CRISPR — unethical genetic alter­ation and reckless use of powers man does not under­stand — must be thor­oughly explored before use of the tech­nology is con­sidered.