Editing the Genes of Human Embryos: Moral Issues (Important) (Download PDF)


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Oregon Health and Science University scientists’ successfully edited genes of human embryos correcting defective DNA that can cause inherited diseases. They used the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology to alter single-cell human embryos allowing specific sections of DNA to be altered or replaced.

Editing the Genes of Human Embryos Moral Issues

Editing the Genes of Human Embryos Moral Issues

Editing the Genes of Human Embryos Moral Issues


  • Scientists used sperm donated from men who carried inherited disease mutations to demonstrate the correction.
  • One-celled embryos only allowed to develop for a few days using a process called “germline engineering” where genetically modified organisms pass changes to offspring eradicating inherited disease. It allows permanent germline changes to pass down to any offspring.
  • Considered as a milestone in giving birth to the first genetically modified humans.

Ethical Issues with Genetic Technology

Transgenic biotechnology provides range of applications, from increasing food production to preventing and treating diseases. Following issues however need to be considered

Social Concerns

  • If the blending of animal and human DNA results in chimeric entities possessing degrees of intelligence, should these entities be given rights and special protections
  • Enact the social and legal controls or reviews placed on this research.
  • Understand the unintended personal, social, and cultural consequences of new beings
  • Understand the access to these technologies and the allocation of scarce resources like medical advances and novel treatments

Extrinsic Concerns

  • Understand the health risks associated with genetically modified foods
  • Understand the long-term effects of transgenic or genetically modified organisms to environment.

Intrinsic Concerns

  • Understand the fundamental issues with creating new species
  • Understand the boundaries between species- and consequences of blurring species boundaries.
  • Understand the research in genetic engineering, which should be considered morally impermissible and banned for example, research undertaken for purely offensive military purposes.

CRISPR-Cas9 Genome Editing Technology

CRISPR-Cas9 enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome

CRISPR-Cas9 Genome Editing Technology

CRISPR-Cas9 Genome Editing Technology

CRISPR-Cas9 Genome Editing Technology

How Does CRISPR-Cas9 Work?

  • System consists of two key molecules that introduce a mutation into the DNA:
  • Enzyme called Cas9: acts as ‘molecular scissors’ that can cut the two strands of DNA at a specific location in the genome allowing bits of DNA to be added or removed.
  • Guide RNA (gRNA): consists of a small piece of pre-designed RNA sequence located within a longer RNA scaffold. The scaffold binds to DNA and the pre-designed sequence ‘guides’ Cas9 to the right part of the genome allowing it to cut at the right point in the genome.
  • Cell now tries to repair the DNA- Scientists use the DNA repair to introduce changes
  • Some bacteria have a similar gene editing system to respond to invading pathogens like viruses
  • Earlier scientists were using ‘gene targeting’ to introduce changes in specific places
  • Several other ‘gene editing’ technologies have recently been developed, including CRISPR-Cas systems, transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs) and zinc-finger nucleases (ZFNs).
  • CRISPR-Cas9 is currently the fastest, cheapest, and most reliable
  • CRISPR is short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. It allows scientists to selectively edit genome parts and replace them with new DNA stretches. CRISPR is a collection of DNA sequences that direct Cas9 where to cut and paste


  • Treating a range of medical conditions with genetic component, including cancer, hepatitis B or high cholesterol.
  • Applications involve editing the genomes of somatic cells but has potential in editing germline cells.
  • Carrying out gene editing in germline cells currently illegal in the UK and most other countries.

- Published/Last Modified on: September 6, 2017


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