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Hacking the human genome has long made for great science fiction theater because it has always seemed fantastically impossible and it lends itself so readily to sinister plotlines.

But since scientists succeeded in mapping the human genome in the 1990s, genetically engineering people seems less like fiction and more like the presumptive endpoint of medical research.

We still fear tinkering with the human genome in heritable ways, even as using genetic engineering to treat people who are sick begins to make real progress. It’s illegal to edit heritable DNA in many countries, though not in the United States. But we’ve left discussion of the ethical implications and the nuts and bolts of regulation to be worked out as the technology moves into reach.

But in 2012, what once seemed only a future possibility became an immediate dilemma.

That’s when University of California molecular biologist Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D., and some colleagues outlined a new genetic engineering technique called CRISPR-Cas9 in a paper in the journal Science. In short, the technology allows a scientist to snip out problematic pieces of...