Should humanity be allowed to edit human DNA? Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Ever since the structure of DNA was discovered in 1953, our constantly evolving understanding of it, and our application of this knowledge, has represented one of the greatest endeavors in human history. It’s a science not without controversy, however: The modification of human DNA is a particularly sensitive subject. In order to reach a global consensus on the ethics of editing human DNA, a three-day-long summit in Washington DC, from December 1-3, is taking place to discuss this contentious subject.

Organized by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the U.K. Royal Society, the meeting is expected to include representatives from at least 20 different nations. At this International Summit on Human Gene Editing, all attendees will convey their thoughts on the application, benefits, and dangers of genetic modification on humans.

The science of genetics has undoubtedly revolutionized our understanding of several fields, and while there is much left to discover, the power of genetic modification is evident. We are able to make crops resistant to extreme weather conditions, and diseases can be prevented in animals, both by altering their DNA.

Although editing genetic sequences takes a lot of time and effort, the emergence of CRISPR_Cas9 has caused a huge upheaval in the medical science community. Published in 2012, this technique allows for the rapid alteration of the DNA of nearly any organism – including a human. In essence, it uses bacterial enzymes to cut genomes at very precise spots; replacement genetic material can then be inserted into the genome. It’s cheap, quick, easy to use, and it has appeared in countless labs as a result.

Image credit: The 1975 conference was in the organizers’ minds as the 2015 one was proposed. science photo/Shutterstock

Several diseases and cancers could theoretically be edited out of human DNA using this method. In addition, we could enhance our DNA, making us immune to deadly, incurable infections, including HIV. Already, the first experiments on human embryos have taken place in China; the DNA was altered to correct several faulty genes that carry disease. But the rapid proliferation of this technique has sparked an ethical debate on human genome editing. 

Although the CRISPR editing technique is remarkably accurate, without being 100 percent sure of its effects, altering the DNA of a human embryo and allowing it to develop into a human could have catastrophic consequences – ones that could be passed down to future generations.

There is also a chance of this technique, like any scientific method, being used for malevolent purposes. Back in 1975, another conference on genetics similar to this week’s one was convened when it became clear that two different species could have their DNA spliced into each other. At the time, an experiment to splice DNA from a cancer-causing monkey virus into a bacteria that could infect humans was underway. It was quickly realized that international safeguards had to be put into place.

In many countries around the world, it is illegal to genetically modify a human embryo that is going to become a person. This conference aims to debate the intricacies and morals of possibly allowing this in certain circumstances.

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