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Editing the Human Germline: Groundbreaking Science and Mind-Numbing Sentiment

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer and science journalist at http://thedotingskeptic.wordpress.com. He may be contacted at krausekc@msn.com.

Should biologists use new gene-editing technology to modify or “correct” the human germline? Will our methods soon prove sufficiently safe and efficient and, if so, for what purposes? Much-celebrated CRISPR gene-editing pioneer Jennifer Doudna recently recalled her initial trepidations over that very prospect:

Humans had never before had a tool like CRISPR, and it had the potential to turn not only living people’s genomes but also all future genomes into a collective palimpsest upon which any bit of genetic code could be erased and overwritten depending on the whims of the generation doing the writing. . . . Somebody was inevitably going to use CRISPR in a human embryo . . . and it might well change the course of our species’ history in the long run, in ways that were impossible to foretell. (Doudna and Sternberg 2017)

And it didn’t take long. Just one month after Doudna and others called for a moratorium on human germline editing in the clinical setting, scientists in Junjiu Huang’s lab at Sun Yatsen University in Guangzhou, China, published a paper describing their exclusively in vitro use of CRISPR on eighty-six human embryos (Liang et al. 2015). Huang’s goal was to edit mutated beta-globin genes that would otherwise trigger a debilitating blood disorder called beta-thalassemia.

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