- As DNA technology improves, society must take care to examine the social and ethical implications that come with this.
- This includes concerns about human health and wellbeing and creating a slippery slope where genome engineering becomes the norm.
- There are also issues surrounding the ownership and privacy of DNA data, and how the information is used.
Increases in knowledge and technology surrounding our DNA has uses in many areas of society including:
- Scientific research – scientists have many more advanced tools to work with now, and much more knowledge on which to base new experiments
- Health and disease – with research always improving, there are new ways to treat diseases based on genetic engineering, by fixing faulty genes. We are also starting to understand some of the variation in our DNA, and it can often be used to predict certain traits
- Crime – DNA technologies have criminal and legal implications, because the technology can be used in the conviction of criminals to prove they were at the scene of a crime
- Familial relationships – genetic information can be used to assess paternity and identify other relatives, as well as helping to determine ancestry
- Food science – genetic engineering can be used to modify crops, conferring them disease resistance, drought resistance, and enhancing their ability to grow in new environments
Because a lot of this information and its applications are very new and constantly advancing, there is considerable concern about the downstream implications if these technologies are not fully understood and tightly regulated.
With more and more people opting to have parts (or the whole of) their genome sequenced, scientists and physicians are starting to build a bigger picture of genetic contributions to traits and diseases. This can be incredibly useful for people who are at risk of certain diseases, who can have a better idea about whether genetics predicts that they are likely to get the disease.
Genetics can also predict more fun traits such as whether you’re likely to sneeze when looking at bright lights, whether you are likely to loathe the taste of coriander, and your likelihood of smelling asparagus in your pee! There are many examples of direct-to-consumer DNA tests that you can buy that will give you a report showing what your DNA says about you.
However, some bioethicists are concerned about the implications of having this information. This is particularly true with regards to features with small effect sizes, such as your genetics showing you have a slightly increased risk of bowel cancers (which actually means a slightly larger number of people who went on to develop bowel cancer had some of the same variation as you, but does not in any way suggest you will get bowel cancer). This could impact upon someone’s mental health and wellbeing and negatively impact the way they live their life. Conversely, having this information can empower someone to make better lifestyle choices and be more aware of their health.
Human genome editing
Huge leaps in genome editing technology have been made in recent years. Current gene therapy research has focused on treating debilitating diseases by targeting cells such as those in the bone marrow or blood. The resulting changes cannot be passed on to future generations because edits are not made in the germline, that is, the egg or sperm cells that are used to produce the next generations. Targeting these cells would be called germline gene therapy, and comes with a lot of ethical implications. In fact, most of the ethical discussions centre on germline editing. This debate has regained some fire with increase in technology that makes genome editing a less complex and farfetched task.
Experts generally believe that human genome editing for the purposes of reproduction should not be carried out at this time, but that studies research on the matter should continue. Germline therapy could allow families to prevent their offspring from developing a genetic disease, but it might have as yet unknown side effects. Additionally, people who would be affected by germline gene therapy cannot give informed consent, as they are not yet born. There is an international effort led by the USA, UK, and China to standardise genome editing technology regulations.
Safety is also a big concern. This is due to the possibility of off-target effects of genome editing, meaning edits in the wrong place that could cause harmful effects such as cancers. Some researchers are also concerned that any genome editing will start a slippery slope to using it for non-therapeutic and ‘enhancement’ purposes. How do we decide which human traits are “normal” and which constitute a disorder that can be corrected with gene therapy?
Since the 1980s, DNA evidence has been used to convict criminals with unparalleled certainty. However, the storage and use of DNA information, especially with technologies always improving, is a controversial topic.
One interesting case from the USA in 2018 has raised the question of ethics related to DNA and criminal investigations. This case was that of the “Golden State Killer”, the name given to an unknown serial rapist and killer who committed at least 12 murders, upwards of 50 rapes and over 100 burglaries in the 1970s and 80s. Police compared DNA from the crime scenes against online DNA data (willingly submitted by people interested in their ancestry) to track down this suspect. Eventually, they found a relative match, and they managed to narrow down the suspect pool. They eventually arrested a 72-year-old man for these historical crimes.
This is a controversial case, because although police have long used DNA for forensic examinations, they have typically compared samples to databases created specifically for criminals, or compared DNA data with a known suspect. People might not realise that their DNA could be used for such purposes when they upload it to a genealogy site. This again raises the issue of informed consent.
Genetically modified crops
Genetically modified crops are created by modifying the DNA of the plants to improve their growth or use for human consumption. This can improve their disease resistance, make crops generally more resilient and improve product yields. This has many important effects, and could help to alleviate poverty by producing a more reliable food source.
Another interesting example is the generation of a product called ‘Golden Rice’. Golden rice is a type of rice produced through genetic engineering to allow the plant make beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, in the edible parts of rice. Golden rice is produced to be grown and consumed in areas with a shortage of dietary vitamin A, a deficiency which causes irreversible blindness and often death.
However, there are a number of ethical concerns over genetically modified foods and these have negatively impacted public support of the products.
One ethical concern about genetically modified foods is their potential ability to cause allergies or disease in humans. If the DNA is from an organism that the individual has never been exposed to. Disease is a major public health worry with regards to genetically modified foods. Some crops modified using DNA from bacteria or viruses, so there is concern that a new disease could be produced, or that any conferred antibiotic resistance could somehow be passed on to pathogens. This concern is largely due to misinformation and lack of understanding of how genetic engineering works. However, much research should be done before food is allowed to be consumed to ensure public safety.
There are many more areas of discussion around the ethics of genetic engineering that can be found in the further reading section.
Further reading and references