Imagine it’s Saturday night, you are snowed in until the morning and you need a way to pass the time. Like many people, you resort to Netflix. Upon browsing through the vast selection of horror, comedy, and romantic films, you decide you are in the mood for a documentary. Scrolling through the options, you stop at a title that grabs your attention: Unnatural Selection.
Since you are an AP Biology student, you immediately connect the words “Natural Selection” to the work of Charles Darwin, the study of genetics, and most importantly: evolution. In brief, natural selection is the survival and reproduction of the fittest, the idea that organisms with traits better suited to living in a specific environment will survive to reproduce offspring with similar traits. Those with unfavorable traits may not be able to reproduce, and therefore those traits are no longer passed down through that species. Natural selection is a mechanism for genetic diversity in evolution, and it is how species adapt to certain environments over many generations.
If genetic diversity enables natural selection, then what enables unnatural selection? Well, If natural selection eradicates unfavorable traits naturally, then unnatural selection essentially eradicates unfavorable traits or promotes favorable traits artificially.
The Netflix docuseries “Unnatural Selection” focuses on the emergence of a new gene-editing technology named CRISPR (an acronym for “Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”). CRISPR is a revolutionary new method of DNA editing, which could help cure both patients with genetic diseases and patients who are at risk of inheriting unwanted genetic diseases. The two pioneers of this technology, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, recently won Nobel Prizes in Chemistry for their work on CRISPR.
CRISPR works with the Cas9 enzyme to locate and cut a specific segment of DNA. Scientists first identify the sequence of the human genome, and locates a specific region that needs to be altered. Using that sequence, they design a guide RNA strand that will help the Cas9 enzyme, otherwise known as the “molecular scissors” to locate the specific gene, and then make precision cuts. With the affected region removed, scientists can now insert a correct sequence in its place.
Using the bacterial quirk that is CRISPR, scientists have essentially given anyone with a micropipette and an internet connection the power to manipulate the genetic code of any living thing.
Megan Molteni / WIRED
CRISPR is just the beginning of gene editing, introducing a new field of potential gene editing research and applications. But with great power comes great responsibility — and great controversy. Aside from the obvious concerns, people speculating the safety, research, and trials of this new treatment, CRISPR headlines are dominated by a hefty ethical dilemma. On one hand, treating a patient for sickle cell anemia will rid them of pain and suffering, and allows their offspring to enjoy a normal life as well. However, by eliminating the passing down of this trait, sickle cell anemia is slowly eliminated from the human gene pool. Rather than natural selection choosing the path of human evolution — we are. We are selecting which traits we deem “abnormal” and are removing them scientifically. Although CRISPR treatment is intended to help people enjoy normal lives and have equally as happy children, putting evolution into the hands of those evolving can result in more drastic effects in the future.
For our generation, CRISPR seems like a magical cure for genetic diseases. But for future generations, CRISPR could very well be seen as the source of many problems such as overpopulation, low genetic diversity, and future alterations such as “designer babies.” Humans have reached the point where we are capable of our future. Is CRISPR going to solve all of our problems, or put an end to the diverse human race as we know it? Comment how you feel down in the comments.