PORT MCNEILL, B.C. – Brooklyn Watson is expanding her research on genetic engineering.
The Grade 8 student is looking at the ethics of genetic engineering technologies.
She first became interested in genome editing after she read about Arctic Apples and how through biotechnology, the fruit doesn’t brown.
“I got started on the topic in Grade 6. I was in the dentist’s office, and I found an article in Reader’s Digest outlining the Arctic Apple. So in Grade 6, I learned all about how they were modifying the genome of plants for agriculture,” Watson said.
Last year, her research on genome engineering earned her a bronze medal in the Canada-Wide Science Fair.
Towards the end of her research, she learned about CRISPR and how they were being used for animals. CRISPR is a group of DNA sequences with “spaces” in between, which are remains of past viruses.
CRISPRs help genes “remember” invading viruses, which helps the body fight off the illness.
“This year, since there’ve been numerous developments recently, I’ve started learning about how they’re using (CRISPR) on humans for curing diseases and inherited genetic disorders.”
“One of my main focus points with my platform is that the public requires education in order to be aware, so they can contribute to the conversation so we can make more ethical guidelines regarding this technology.”
Part of Watson’s research this year is seeing if enough people know about genome engineering technologies, and if they agree with it.
“What I’ve noticed (so far), is that over 65% of the people interviewed have never heard of CRISPR-Cas9 and don’t know what it is. The majority of these people are either much younger or the elderly. Also, many people in older populations feel that it’s completely unethical to be used in the first place. Also, these answers of non-acceptance correlate almost directly with unawareness and people who haven’t heard of it.”
Watson added that now that the technology is being used on humans, it’s another conversation because lives will be impacted.
“They’re editing something called the “germline”, which means that through reproduction, these mistakes will be passed onto offspring. So it’s crucial that we’ve tested them and ensured that they’re safe before we start making these modifications.”
“We have to acknowledge that it (genetic engineering) has a huge potential for good and for helping so many people, but the problem is it’s quite unethical to jump into something without understanding fully the risks.”