“You have specified hazel eyes, dark hair and fair skin. I’ve taken the liberty of eradicating any potentially prejudicial conditions. Premature baldness, myopia… alcoholism and addictive susceptibility… propensity for violence, obesity, etc” said the Geneticist in the movie Gattaca, a Sci-fi movie released in 1997 which is set in a ‘not too distant’ future. In the movie, the process of conceiving children through genetic manipulation, is the most common avenue of giving birth.
The ‘not too distant future’ is approaching. Genetic manipulation is real, throughout recent years scientists have developed gene technologies to alter our genes. This process is called genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering is the process of using recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology to alter the genetic makeup of an organism which is done by: 

  1. Extracting DNA from human cells. 
  2. Restriction enzymes, as known as molecular scissors cut DNA into smaller pieces, leaving unpaired bases called ‘sticky ends’
  3. The same restriction enzyme is used to cut plasmids in bacteria. This opens up their circular shape and leaves sticky ends as well. The sticky ends at the cut human DNA and the sticky ends of the plasmid have complementary bases.
  4. The human DNA and the cut plasmid are mixed together. Their complementary bases and ligase enzymes (aka. ‘The glue’)  join the unpaired bases of the human DNA and the cut plasmid together. 
  5. A recombinant DNA is formed; containing DNA from humans and bacteria.
  6. The recombinant DNA is put into the bacteria which is then fermented. This allows them to reproduce offspring which contain copies of recombinant DNA. 

The use of recombinant DNA technology has been applied to many uses which has massively benefitted us. This technology has created bacteria that are capable of synthesizing human insulin, human growth hormone, alpha interferon and hepatitis B vaccine. Genetic engineering is also used to modify the genotypes (genes)  and phenotypes (physical characteristics) of plants such as the commonly-known golden rice and bt corn.
However, the wow factor doesn’t stop here. Imagine cancer no longer exists, they can be taken away before it spreads. What a phenomenon if we can remove genes responsible for diseases, resulting in a healthy society.
Recently, scientists have found a new way to alter our genetic makeup which can potentially cure genetic diseases such as cancer, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, HIV. This is done by using CRISPR. CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a gene editing tool that is able to edit specific gene mutations that can cause genetic diseases which is done by injecting a mixture of a guide RNA, with a matching sequence to the mutated DNA sequence and .Cas9 .protein. As they match, the Cas9 protein acts like molecular scissors and cuts the mutated DNA sequence and inserts a healthy DNA sequence instead. This results in the person not having the disease anymore.

Through time, genetic engineering technologies have greatly evolved. Numerous scientists and researchers are currently conducting research and proceeding clinical trials. In 2016, scientists used CRISPR Cas9 technology to treat rats with HIV which removed more than 50% of the virus in their bodies. In June 2016, National Institutes of Health (NIH) approved a proposal to use CRISPR–Cas9 to help augment cancer therapies. This was done by injecting a gene for a protein engineered to detect cancer cells and boost immunity to fight against them. Therefore, it indicates that scientists speculate that CRISPR is the future of curing genetic diseases. This is only the beginning of genetic engineering, many more new gene technologies are currently being developed, hoping to improve the future of the human race. 

How can it be applied to our daily lives?

With these fascinating technologies creeping into our lives, the impossible is now possible. Science fiction becomes a science fact. Many researchers are innovating and constantly improving this simple and easy procedure, making it the best. In the future, genetic engineering may be a common procedure. Once genetic diseases are easily eradicated, this will reduce people’s medical costs, tremendously benefitting the global population. Also, genetically modified foods that are resistant to pests and extreme conditions, such as Vitamin-rich golden rice, BT corn, AquAdvantage salmon, increases worldwide food production which reduces famine, increasing our living standards. 

What will be the best practice of genetic engineering?

We seek to be the best versions of ourselves, having perfect hardware and software. Try imagining, you are a carrier of a haemophilia gene which is a deadly genetic disease that causes you to bleed excessively. If you have the chance to edit your germline cells to prevent your children from having the disease and relieve them from suffering, would you do it? Genetic engineering seems like a perfect solution for eliminating incurable genetic diseases. Moreover, would you want to make your child the best version of themselves? Being 6 ft tall, having an IQ of 190, shiny thick hair,  gorgeous eyes, healthy and muscular? If we are able to edit one specific gene in our bodies, designer babies are not far from being possible.
Also, it may be achievable to use genetic engineering alongside other gene technologies to slow down our aging process. Cells age due to genetic and epigenetic mechanisms which are influenced by genes, environmental and stochastic factors. Genetic factors cause DNA to break as well as the systems that’s responsible for fixing to wear off over time. If we can cut the genes that directly affect aging and replace them with genes that do not affect aging; it can be possible to stop, slow down or potentially reverse aging.

Apart from using Genetic engineering to eradicate diseases, it can also be used as treatment for diseases as well. Take the SCN9A gene as an example, the gene is responsible for making a protein that transmits pain signals from the peripheral nervous system (eg. finger tips, skin) to the central nervous system which is the brain and spinal cord.

“If you get rid of that gene you cannot transmit the signal. You feel no pain. Why, well, I’ll give you a legitimate reason. Pain due to cancer is terrible, especially if it’s terminal cancer and the person has months to live, why not get rid of that gene? And I’m sure this [CRISPR] will be, we will have gene editing of that gene.”
Mentioned by Fyodor Urnov – Innovative Genomics Institute, Scientific Director of Technology and Translation, Human Nature, Netflix 

However, being able to alter a person’s genes raises several ethical concerns which include safety, informed consent, justice and equity and religious objections. Some researchers and bioethicists are concerned that allowing genome editing for therapeutic and enhancement purposes can get out of control. It may potentially cause unknown side effects and new diseases may develop. It is impossible to gain consent from the edited embryo and future generations when editing germline cells.
Genetic engineering is considered as a relatively new technology which is expensive and only the wealthy can afford them. This can lead to inequality in society and pressure on other parents to use genome editing. Moreover, there are religious objections to using human embryos for research, some believe that it is considered as “playing God”. 

The worst case: Will the world end if human doesn’t handle genetic engineering properly?

The worst thing that can happen is genome editing getting out of control. The main objective of genetic engineering may eventually change from medical purposes to commercial purposes. Editing genes to make people the best version of themselves can turn into a social trend, pressuring others to undergo the procedure as well. It can cause inequality between genetically-edited individuals and normal individuals leading to a ‘class’ system and potentially turn into the new Eugenics. The gap of inequality may stir social and economical problems. Citizens, who can afford the genetic engineering, intellectually inclined and good-looking may cause unequal opportunities in comparison with normal human beings. 

Many jobs are preferably provided to perfectly engineered people first. Apart from a huge impact on society, it can negatively affect individuals as well. Genetically engineered children, as known as,  Designer babies are born flawless. Will they end up as arrogant narcissists? They won’t undergo the process of understanding their weaknesses and accepting their flaws. If they don’t understand what imperfection is, how can they understand others? Will they know what empathy and compassion is? Are they even considered human?

How is Genetic engineering development in Thailand.

Many universities, labs and institutes in Thailand have done several projects which involved genetic engineering. The Thai government allows farmers to grow GM crops however, extensive regulations are imposed to prevent cross pollination between GM crops and normal crops.

One of the most successful genetic engineering projects in Thailand is the sterilization in mosquitos performed by Mahidol University. Mosquitoes are genetically modified to be sterile, the procedure is accounted as 97% successful. Furthermore, the mosquitoes are genetically altered resulting in no mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever, chikungunya virus and zika virus. 

The genetics center at Chulalongkorn Hospital provides genetic testing and preimplantation genetic diagnosis. Genetic testing detects changes in chromosomes, genes, proteins; their results identify a suspected genetic condition and finds out the chance of a person developing a genetic disorder, i.e. Down syndrome, thalassemia, and cystic fibrosis. Whereas, preimplantation genetic diagnosis identifies genetic defects in embryos created through IVF (in vitro fertilization), and if results are unfavourable, the pregnancy can be terminated. 

Moreover, researchers from the Futuristic Research Cluster of Thailand (FREAK Lab) are introducing the idea of integrative biology, engineering and design to K-12 students. This STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) subject provides students insights into  biodigital, synthetic biology (which includes genetic engineering) and biomimicry. Therefore, by conducting genetic engineering projects in plants and animals, as well as introducing synthetic biology to future generations ensures that genetic engineering is going to develop further in Thailand.

We have taken the one-way path at the crossroad during our journey with genetic engineering, which is to proceed with it. When a path is chosen, there is no turning back, genetic engineering has already started. Researchers all over the world are exploring the hidden gems in this technology so the real question isn’t, should genetic engineering proceed or not? It is, how do we regulate genome editing so it doesn’t get out of control?