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Life and ethics in an 'era of genetics'

Julett Pineda
July 27, 2022

The promise of genetics is huge: From recreating extinct animals to securing our very own human survival on Earth. But what of the ethics in the science?

Illustration of human sperm
The field of genetics comes with great promise but also ethical problem that will affect future generationsImage: Maksym Yemelyanov/Zoonar/picture alliance

When we talk about genetics, we often see visions of superhumans — people whose DNA has been altered to enhance their abilities, allowing them to outperform others and survive multiple diseases while also having conventional good looks, like "best versions" of humanity.

But those visions can be true of dystopian literature or in the plots of cliché science fiction movies, and less true for reality. 

George Church, a world-leading geneticist, says the idea of creating superhumans is far from what he sees as the future of genetics.

"There's a misunderstanding that you could have a perfect human or even a superhuman. It's often a trade-off," Church told DW. "When you gain something, you lose something. The features that you like about a bicycle are not true for a race car or a jet."

Church has worked in genetics for decades. He was one of the first scientists to sequence the human genome, a method that deciphers the genetic material found in an organism. He also pioneered the development of genome-engineering.

Human gene editing let's scientists change lives 

Genome-engineering goes by a few names. Some call it genetic engineering, others call it genome or gene editing

Some call it a technology, and others refer to it as though it were a pair of scissors you hold in your hands. And in a sense that image works: We can use gene editing techniques to cut out genes that, for example, carry hereditary diseases.

In fact, the technology allows us to add, remove or alter genetic material found in any organism's DNA — that complex molecule that contains the unique building blocks of every living thing. 

An era of genetics 

Gregor Mendel first discovered the fundamentals of inheritance in 1865, through experiments on crossbreeding plants. Those experiments led to what we now call genetics. And oh how the field has progressed.

Speaking from his Harvard University lab, Church said we were living in an "era of genetics."

Why is Mendel seen as the father of genetics?

Mendel's early discoveries have allowed scientists to sequence genomes — including that of viruses like SARS-CoV-2 — and identify the genes that are responsible for more than 5,000 rare diseases. 

They have given us a better understanding of how genes function, and that has raised the promise of improving diagnoses and therapies for illnesses. Church has focused on using genetics to reverse the process of aging. 

Genetics are also used in the science of "de-extinction" — a famous example being the attempt to bring the mammoth back to life.

Genetics may lead to better medicines and fairer societies

Church and other geneticists hope to reverse the effects of age-related chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cognitive degradation and heart diseases. They hope to prevent diseases that cause poverty. 

"A lot of people are kept in poverty because they have to spend much of their time on bad nutrition and fighting infectious diseases. [With genetic research], we could get a virtuous cycle rather than a vicious cycle. And that's very exciting to me," said Church. 

A masked woman working in a lab
Gene editing rewrites DNA to treat genetic or acquired diseasesImage: SWR

"[We might also need] to get off the planet for reasons that are not human, like asteroids, solar flares, super volcanoes, things like that. That may require some powerful medicine, including genetic medicine, to make us resistant to radiation and low gravity and so on," he said.

The ethics of genetics

These future visions come with an array of ethical and philosophical questions, which some experts say we have yet to address. 

Take, for instance, the question of what makes us human and who is allowed to decide which genes we change.

"The issue with gene editing and gene therapy has always been [the future] generations," said Jan Witkowski, a professor at the Graduate School of Biological Sciences at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in the US. "If the gene therapy alters an egg, then that change is inherited through the generations." 

And those future generations have no say on whether they want that change to be made. 

Removing bias from genetics

The field of genetics has allowed scientists to develop personalized medicine, where treatments can be tailored to an individual's specific condition. We have also built huge repositories of genetic data.

But some scientists argue that these repositories are unrepresentative of the global population. With nearly 90% of the genome data currently available coming from people with European ancestry, the data lacks diversity

This disparity could result in underrepresented populations missing out on the benefits of genetic research.

Genetics is also still very expensive. Church said the technology may get more affordable, like the Internet, and to some extent water and education, but none of those "are truly equitable," he said.

"The only technology I've identified that's truly equally distributed, meaning that nobody on the planet has to pay a penny for it, is smallpox," Church said. "That's because it's extinct: We no longer have to develop and deploy vaccines and drugs [against smallpox]. And that could be done for a whole variety of infectious diseases [with genetics]."

Edited by: Zulfikar Abbany