The recent advances in genetics research and biotechnology offer new opportunities to understand, change, and program the basic code of life on Earth. This cutting-edge research and development (R&D) in gene editing and engineering, however, also raises fundamental questions about ethics, morality, and the various scenarios relating to our biology, ecosystem, and future. Gene drive systems, for instance, are processes that drive a specific variety of genes targeting a particular species. Pursuing the eradication of disease-causing insects as a result of gene drives could also lead to the adaptation and development of new ones. Moreover, the engineering techniques could also miss the target gene and bring about unintended and undesired scenarios.
The ramifications of novel genetic therapies to treat intractable human diseases differ from human enhancements. Genetic human enhancements may be passed onto future generations by engineering genes in embryos (referred to as germline editing), potentially making a seemingly net positive for society evolve into a harmful cascading failure in the long term. But could genetic enhancements on Earth become medical necessities in space? Some bioethicists and philosophers argue that human enhancement is necessary for extended space missions beyond low Earth orbit. I’m neither a bioethicist nor a geneticist, but I sense there are no straight-line, easy responses regarding R&D in human gene editing or our ecosystem. Still, as a writer examining some of the considerations for our sustainability in space, any long-term plans for extended space travel will inevitably force us to redefine what our engineering needs will be beyond just a faster propulsion system.
Reviewing CRISPR for space
Studying how bacteria fight viruses has paved for the latest onset of genetic breakthroughs, recently recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize in Chemistry (2020). CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) are bacterial DNA sequences that contain short repetitions of the genetic bases (A, T, C, and G) to fight viruses. The Cas9 enzyme associated with the CRISPR bacterial immune system cuts up the viruses’ DNA with a type of genetic scissor. Researchers discovered that Cas9 enzyme could cut DNA in any organism, and the repetition in the CRISPR sequences signals Cas9 where to edit. Therefore, the CRISPR/Cas9 gene system can be directed with a synthetic guide RNA molecule to make cuts in a specific location of the DNA for disruption (causing gene inactivation), deletion, correction, or the insertion of a new gene.