“Bad genes” in genetic engineering

From genetically modified animals to foods and crops, genetic engineering has become largely integrated into our lives. Yet it’s also been one of the most controversial topics in the fields of science and medicine. According to yourenome.org, genetic engineering refers to the manipulation of DNA to change an organism’s appearance.

With society’s increasingly idealized standards for appearance, many parents now want to use “selective breeding” on their children to have their characteristics enhanced, . For one family, blue eyes may be an undesirable trait, and for another, it could be black hair. Either way, these phenotypes, the observable physical traits of an organism, result from the genotypes encoded in the genes, and CRISPR-Cas9 and other genome-editing technology have become widely used in embryos to edit out these unwanted traits.

However, “bad genes” don’t only include genes that produce subjectively-judged phenotypes. Mutations in the LRRK-2 gene can withhold a dormant stage of Parkinson’s Disease, while a point mutation in the gene coding for hemoglobin results in sickle cell anemia. Worried that their children would grow up with these diseases, parents also seek to edit out these mutated genes in order to prevent their children from growing up unhealthy and suffering,

A recent article from the New York Times explores how many of these supposedly “bad” genes have helped us survive in the past. Even though we have many drugs on the market nowadays to protect us from infections, “new pathogens for which we don’t have cures continue to emerge – like H.I.V and SARS and drug-resistant variants of TB”. Most importantly, the article summarizes that “[a] gene that we now think increases the risk of cognitive decline may actually protect against it in other environments”. The genes that we think are bad right now may actually prove to be useful in other situations and conditions, and such a finding is alarming, as it juxtaposes the initial ideals behind the emergence of genetic engineering: to edit out undesirable genes for either personal preferences or better health.

The concept of genetic engineering may seem disturbing to many, for those who believe that people are born the way they are, and grow up with the genes inherited by their parents. Even if these genes really were bad, genetic modification edits a person’s inherent being in order for them to become a certain way in which they’re really not.

Junior Andrew Liu has been researching the broad topic of genetic engineering and its controversial views from eclectic sources recently for his American Literature Honors class, and has formed his own opinion regarding the implications of “bad genes”.

“I didn’t know much about genetic engineering since all I knew was what we learned about in freshmen bio,” Liu said. “My views have changed since then due to the many applications of genetic engineering from food to medicine”. Specifically pertaining to medicine,“there are bad genes because certain genes code for proteins that are prone to eventually cause a disease,” Liu said. However, he also believes that those are the only kinds of bad genes, and “[p]hysical appearances are shaped by peoples’ personal preferences, and none of the genes that result in unwanted traits are technically bad. It just depends on what people like,” Liu said.

 Society’s standards for people has influenced the increasing demand to accelerate genetic engineering. Back in the day, the concept of genetic engineering emerged from the collective desire to build an exclusive aryan race and pass the best genes along to later generations. “Society’s current stigma about genetic engineering severely inhibits the progression of genetic engineering”, since “human individuality can also be affected as people could eventually all have the same physical traits that they desire”, Liu said. He values individuality, and although he supports genetic engineering, he promotes genetic engineering as a technology that will benefit the health of our society and alleviate the potential sufferings that people with dormant genes may eventually suffer from in the future.

Our modern approaches to genetic engineering are shaped by our perspectives by it, whether we think of it from the moral or health aspects and applications. It would be desirable to see genetic engineering be used only for health purposes, and not anything else subjective to one’s own background and opinions.