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Illustration by Dhabia Al Mansoori

CRISPR Wins the Nobel Prize in Chemistry: A Utopia or a Dystopia?

CRISPR might be one of the greatest achievements in humanity, but the threat of its misuse might also make it our downfall.

Oct 11, 2020

On Oct. 7, scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna received the annual life-changing call from Stockholm, informing them that they have received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the development of a method for genome editing.” More commonly known as CRISPR-Cas9, these genetic scissors provide immense hope for humankind to “make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true,” innovate new cancer therapies and modify the code of life for “the greatest benefit to humankind” — as Alfred Nobel’s will specifies.
Simply put, by recreating the genetic scissors of the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes in a test tube, simplifying their molecular structure so that they were easier to use and reprogramming them so that they can cut into any DNA molecule at a predetermined site, Charpentier and Doudna revolutionized the life sciences.
First, the prize was claimed by two fierce women in science, increasing the representation of women in science, technology, engineering and math — STEM — fields and inspiring rising women in the field to innovate and achieve. Second, the CRISPR technology has already made its way into medicine and agriculture, among other industries and is likely to change our perception of the distinction between what is natural — and thus unchangeable — and what we can alter. However, let us not be blinded by the light. CRISPR may have given humanity a chance at utopia, but a dystopia is also not too far a possibility.
Nobel Prize-winning work is often seen as synonymous with the absolute truth and this is where the danger lies. Our well-intentioned desire to make the world a better place might tempt us into heavily relying on a globally recognized technology like CRISPR, without seriously considering the harm that it may cause. And so, by the time we notice our mistakes, the damage might be irreversible. Luckily, we have a handful of options we can pursue before we reach that stage.
The question of ethics in technology is not a new one. I doubt that any of us have not entered — or at least heard of — a debate on genetic modification, genetically-modified organisms or CRISPR babies. However, this does not make our concerns regarding genetic modification any less important or relevant to the challenges our world currently faces and is likely to face.
From a positive standpoint, CRISPR could be our first building block in the construction of a utopia — the paradoxically “good place” and “no place” that we owe to Sir Thomas More. CRISPR is a cheaper, more effective and more accurate genetic tool than any other genetic modification technique that we know of; it has the power to cut into target DNA, after which scientists can remove, add or replace the DNA at the spot where it was cut.
This process could have a plethora of applications. According to the World Health Organization, 10 in 100 children are born with a monogenic disease, a genetic disease resulting from a mutation in a single gene. With CRISPR, we have the power to turn the switch off these malicious genes and possibly eliminate genetic diseases. This means people may no longer have to suffer from horrible genetic diseases like Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia. Even better, CRISPR provides hope to eliminate other diseases that plague millions of people like diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s. Essentially, the long-term implication is that if we succeed in eliminating the mutated gene from the genome of our “designer babies”, those babies’ future children — as well as all the future generations — would not get that disease either. Powerful, no?
Think of how in just a few decades into the future, we could be living in a society filled with designer babies. Charlotte Perkin Gilman, in her novel Herland, gives us an example of a society where undesirable traits are “bred out” of society — the definition of eugenics. Women with undesirable traits are not allowed to bear children for several generations until the society is free of conflict, war and crime.
Once the idea of a “designer baby” becomes common and accepted, there would probably be no limit as to what we can decide about the appearance and intelligence of this baby. White male? Guaranteed. Cancer-free? Guaranteed. Charismatic and sociable? Entrepreneurial? Highly intelligent? No risk of heart disease? All guaranteed. A generation of superbabies is born. Supposedly, achieving “standards of perfection” could be a way to increase income and achieve better outcomes in life. Does that seem particularly utopian?
Now let us suppose the entire world wants their children to look creepily similar and identically beautiful, intelligent and disease-free. Would all families have the chance to do so? Probably not. CRISPR is inevitably going to discriminate against low-income families who cannot afford such an expensive treatment technology. CRISPR would become exclusively available to the wealthy, encrypting castes and classes into our children’s DNA instead. In a world where the wealthy are even more able to gain superiority, social intelligence, education and success, the economic mobility of the rest of the world comes to a screeching halt, and the value of hard work plunges. The poor would undoubtedly lose, once again, in the game of the survival of the fittest. Our world could then be divided into the elite and their superbabies on the one hand, with the poor and their “mediocre” children on the other.
The assumption that all can be solved if only we could meddle with our genes is absurdly reductionist. CRISPR isn’t necessarily the solution: in addition to bad genes, individuals today suffer from a combination of racism, unfair economics and unequal opportunity.
The blind use of CRISPR to design the following generations can also reemphasize the ridiculous beauty standards that adolescents and adults already suffer from at present. If a child is born without CRISPR and does not look like a CRISPR child, then we would be back to square one, struggling with definitions of beauty, and widening inequality.
When one takes these issues into consideration, our chances at a utopia seem pretty grim. Instead, a dystopia like the one in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where regular people are referred to as exotic “savages” placed in savage reservations might be closer to future reality. Perhaps individuality becomes a thing of the past, and talent is no longer recognizable.
Well, what if we are economically capable of choosing to design our babies with CRISPR, but choose not to? What if there is an ethical pool of rich people who wish for their children to be born the way they were destined to be; do we call them heroes, or are they deliberately choosing to deprive our future children of the competitive edge that other CRISPR children would have? Is that fair for our children? Does it make us bad parents?
Given the speed of the advancement of science and technology, these questions are not unworthy of our consideration as Generation Z.
I do not mean to leave you with a dark cloud hovering over your head. The achievement of Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna deserves heartfelt congratulations to humanity, but it is ultimately a double-edged sword. The decision of which edge to use is purely our own, and our children depend on us to make the right one.
Aya Abu Ali is a contributing writer. Email her feedback at
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