How do you determine whether or not you are related to someone else? Genealogists might answer that question by searching for a common ancestor that connects them to another person. Or, a genealogist may learn that he or she has relatives they never knew about, thanks to DNA test results. If a person’s DNA has been altered – is he still your relative?
Interestingly, that question is not one being asked by genealogists. The debate over altered DNA is one that has been taken up by scientists who are molecular biologists and a group of activists from Friends of the Earth along with scientists from the Center for Genetics and Society. They have asked for a global ban on a new tool that can be used to edit human embryos.
The tool is a technology called CRISPR/Cas9. It allows scientists to manipulate genes, and has been described as working in a way that is similar to a “find and replace” function in a word document. Scientists can introduce enzymes that can bind to a mutated gene. The mutation can then be replaced or repaired. In short, this technology enables genome editing.
Why are scientists using CRISPR/Cas9? They hope that this gene-editing technique can be used to prevent disease. There are many genetically heritable diseases that have no cure. In “plain English”, some scientists want to use this technology to ensure healthy babies, who would otherwise have been born with a disease that does not have a cure. There is potential that this technology could be used along with IVF.
Why do some people want to ban the use of CRISPR/Cas9? There is concern that the technology could be a “Pandora’s Box”. In other words, some people are worried that once the technology is used, there is no going back. What if something unforeseen happens as a result of altering human embryos? There is a fear that something might be changed that would result in humans that are vastly different from the current Homo sapiens.
Another concern is that if the technology became wildly available, it might eventually be used in ways that were not intended. Some parents may want to make use of the technology to ensure their baby has athletic ability, or a high IQ, or aesthetically pleasing physical features. There are unresolved ethical questions involved with the potential of CRISPR/Cas9.
There debate between the two groups with differing viewpoints leaves out questions that would interest a genealogist. Your descendants might be able to locate vital records, yearbook photos, and your obituary and use it to connect you to their family tree. Their appearance, however, might be vastly different from your own (and of your ancestors).
Image by ynse on Flickr.
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