He Jiankui, associate professor at Shenzhen’s Southern University of Science (南方科技大学) and Technology of China, made headlines for announcing that he had successfully genetically modified two human twins for HIV resistance. His claim has yet to be verified — as his work was not published in a peer-reviewed journal — but caused a firestorm of intrigue nonetheless, especially since the aforementioned twins were far from the only human embryos the scientist claimed to have experimented upon.
Jiankui’s experimentation was done with CRISPR-Cas9, a gene editing tool crafted from a naturally occurring genome editing system in bacteria which, in the wild, is utilized as a defense mechanism against viruses by cutting viral DNA. Scientists utilize CRISPR in a lab similarly, only in place of using it to disable viruses, they leverage the DNA manipulation properties inherent to the system to create genomic edits by creating a guide RNA which binds to a particular piece of DNA and a Cas9 enzyme. Once the targeted segment is clipped, the DNA’s own repair machinery activates and can be used to add or delete particular portions of material. At the end of the process one has a customized DNA sequence. However, germline edits (those made to genes in egg or sperm-cells) can create intergenerational changes which are difficult to account for which predisposes scientific communities to reticence. Further, many contest that it is “unnatural” and thus wrong, to change human attributes such as eye or hair color or IQ, which would have obvious and monumental social consequences which only further intensifies concern.
As a consequence of Jiankui’s work and announcement thereof, his university has organized a thorough investigation. Southern University of Science, in a public statement concerning the affair, stated, “Our school will immediately hire authoritative experts to set up an independent committee to conduct in-depth investigations and publish relevant information after investigation.” Qiu Zilong of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (中国科学) of Shanghai replied to the affair in a letter, stating, “We can only describe such behaviour as crazy.”
According to the Chinese/English news site, Caixin, He’s human gene experimentation is not just ethically dubious but potentially against Chinese law. The Chinese Communist Party has distanced themselves from the affair, signalling that it is, regardless of legality, deeply contentious.
Ironically, the errant researcher, He Jiankui himself, has echoed these concerns by stating that he only believes gene-editing should be used to cure illnesses and that any gene modifying procedures which change things such as hair or eye color or IQ should be “banned.” It is curious that such a high IQ population which has risen to become a contender for world hegemon as a consequence should look upon willfully increasing aggregate population intelligence as somehow perverse. Further, consider that providing schooling is considered extremely virtuous but increasing the intrinsic potential to absorb and make use of said schooling is considered grotesque…