Such experiments have been taboo since genetic engineering became a reality 42 years ago. The work is the first occasion that scientists have altered the DNA of a human embryo in a way that could be passed on to subsequent generations, writes Pete Spotts for the Christian Science Monitor.

Chinese DNA Experiment Raises Ethical Questions

Controlling DNA to combat disease, or enhance the human race?

The techniques used in the experiment are exciting because they could be used in the fight against inherited diseases, but they also have a dark side, such as the possibility of genetically enhancing humans with unpredictable results.

An ethical dilemma arises due to the fact that humans are unsure whether they “should have this degree of control over their own physical features,” said Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “We’re hitting the point where people are asking: Do we really want to have the power not just to select among the choices given to use by nature, but to create entirely new choices of our own specification?”

Ethical concerns have reached a point where many scientists are calling for consultation in order to define what would be acceptable uses for the technology. Other groups, including some figures in the biotech industry, have called for a moratorium on germ-line research using human reproductive cells.

Ethics brought to the fore

Concerns are such that two of the largest science journals, Science and Nature, did not publish the results of the Chinese research on ethical grounds. The team analyzed embryos in order to ascertain whether a package known as CRISPR-Cas9 had managed to repair damaged DNA. Although results showed that some DNA had been repaired, it was also detected that CRISPR-Cas9 had caused genetic mutations in other areas of the genome.

Such unintended consequences are a major reason for concerns over the safety of the practice. Although there could be significant therapeutic benefits, the technology could be used for more nefarious means, or simply set off an uncontrollable, unpredictable chain of events.

So far the potential impact of such a DNA-altering technique has gone relatively unnoticed outside of scientific circles, but it is inevitable that a wider section of the population will soon have to confront the ethical dilemma that it presents.