With the ability to edit the human genome comes the power to choose a child's IQ or eye colour. As controversial as it is, the potential advantages of this new technology are much more far-reaching and include the ability to prevent more than 10,000 inherited diseases.
Last week, the media pushed out headlines claiming that designer babies were on the way and that mankind was one step closer to consumer eugenics. The stories were based on results from scientists in the US who had genetically altered human embryos using CRISPR technology.
Editing the human genome brings up questions around the ethics of dictating a child's IQ or eye colour, but the potential advantages of this new technology run much deeper than that.
CRISPR (pronounced crisper) stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, which refers to the way that short, repeated DNA sequences in the DNA of bacteria are organised. Bacteria have a mechanism they use to defend themselves from viral attacks, which involves taking pieces of DNA from the invading virus and forming new sequences known as CRISPR.
Scientists have been able to take this bacterial defence mechanism and use it as a gene-editing tool in animal cells, where it finds and repairs DNA mutations within an individual cell.
It's hard to overstate the importance of the achievement that this embryo research makes to the scientific community. Their study isn't about making designer babies, but about how, for the first time, science could be used to repair dangerous heart disease mutations in human embryos. This ability for humans to take control of their genetic destiny could not only transform the lives of individuals, but also help to eradicate devastating diseases by preventing them being passed on to future generations.
Of course, it's controversial, and today many countries prohibit the creation of genetically altered humans, even if the treatment would prolong their life and reduce their suffering.
There are fears that eradicating certain mutations now could put the human species at risk in the long run by changing our DNA forever, making us more genetically homogeneous and less resistant as a population to other diseases in the future.
Like it or not, human trials of CRISPR technology have already started, most of them in China, bringing up discussions around how future scientific progress may not be determined by a country's scientific ability but by the legislation that the country has in place.
With our strict GMO rules, questions around where New Zealand is prepared to draw the line in the rapidly advancing gene editing field need to be asked, as well as how quickly our laws can adapt as the technology develops.
As controversial as it is, this new research has the potential to prevent more than 10,000 inherited diseases, including cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease and BRCA gene-linked breast cancer, which affects millions of people every day.
Gene editing using CRISPR is also making advances in many other areas of science. This year alone, US researchers successfully used CRISPR to completely extract HIV from three different animal models eliminating any further infection from the virus.
It was also used to prompt antibiotic resistant superbugs to self-destruct by attacking their own DNA, creating new opportunities to combat deadly bacteria like MRSA. The technique has shown promise in cancer research as well, with it being used to remove the Tudor-SN protein found in abundance in cancer cells. So far the removal of this protein has resulted in slowing the growth of cancerous cells, potentially helping to boost the effectiveness of standard chemotherapy-based therapies.
For billions of years, life on Earth has been shaped by the slow and incremental process of evolution by doing things the old fashioned way. Now we have the potential to rapidly change evolution as we know it while still fighting over what the long term consequences of this new treatment could be.