Gene editing and 'playing God:' How far should we go?

New gene editing techniques are quickly giving us the power to create a more perfect crop, animal or human. A new CBSN documentary looks at whether we should.

Technology holds the promise of making our lives easier. Now, we're beginning to grapple with whether it should make us better.

"Playing God," a new CBSN Originals documentary that airs Wednesday night, explores both the potential and possible pitfalls of CRISPR, a gene-editing technology developed in 2012. It's an exciting breakthrough that could revolutionize how we grow crops and breed animals. It could help us beat life-threatening diseases, like cancer, and screen unborn children for diseases even before they're conceived. 

An acronym of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, CRISPR is remarkably easy to use. It works by cutting into "flawed" genes, allowing them to be altered. With genome mapping getting cheaper by the day, we're approaching a time when changing an unborn child's hair or eye color could be a trivial effort. 

That's why CRISPR is controversial, it could let us take control of nature. Ethicists are already debating the vast power CRISPR may unlock. They question whether it's right for parents to filter out traits they deem undesirable in order to create "designer" babies. So far, there is no answer. 

Correspondent Adam Yamaguchi meets with Josiah Zayner, an Oakland, California, biohacker who has developed a $350 tool that helps him edit genes. In one scene, Zayner records himself experimenting with CRISPR to edit a gene in his muscles that will ultimately make him stronger. 


How far will -- and should -- we go with gene editing?

Screenshot by Abrar Al-Heeti/CNET

In China, Yamaguchi visits a scientist named Laioxue Lai, who plays with the DNA of animals, including dogs and pigs, to discover what the possibilities may be for humans. The Chinese government provides much of the funding for his projects and dozens of similar ones. (In the US, federal funding for gene editing is either prohibited or very difficult to obtain.)

Zayner and Lai see little that is ethically questionable about what they do. They believe gene editing will ultimately help people.

Still, questions remain: what role should people have in altering traits, and how accessible should this kind of technology be?

"Playing God" airs on Wednesday, Nov. 8, at 8 p.m., 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. ET. on CBSN.

CBSN, like CNET, is owned by CBS.

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