Imagine traveling back in time to the early 1900s and trying to explain to a group of average Americans how much the personal computer and the Internet have changed the world. You might have trouble quantifying just the sheer impact of this technological cornerstone of history. After all, the possibilities are endless when it comes to the potential of modern day computers.
Now, imagine a technological breakthrough of that same caliber happening right now in the 21st century. Except instead of computers, it’s gene editing. Thanks to the development of CRISPR-Cas9, we are currently at the cusp of a new DNA revolution.
For those who are unfamiliar with this exciting development, CRISPR-Cas9 is a unique gene editing tool that allows scientists to cut out segments of DNA from the genome of any organism and move them around or replace them entirely with frightening precision. The CRISPR-Cas9 system is actually an ancient bacterial defense mechanism. When researchers noticed that bacteria appeared to have random genetic information in the middle of their own DNA, they initially did not know what to make of these fragments. When DNA sequencing technology boomed, scientists realized that these previously unknown regions matched archived viral DNA sequences.
It turns out that bacteria chop up and absorb the DNA fragments of invading viruses into their own DNA so that they could respond efficiently if they encounter that same virus again. The bacteria makes a RNA template that matches the viral DNA, and arms Cas9–a DNA cutting enzyme–with that specific RNA molecule. The activated Cas9 enzyme then uses its RNA “mugshot” of the virus to locate the desired sequence of DNA to make an incision at that section (Nature, “CRISPR: gene editing is just the beginning,” 03.07.2016). As co-discoverer Jennifer Doudna describes it, CRISPR is essentially “a molecular scalpel for genomes” (Tech Insider, “We’re on the cusp of a revolution that will change the world as much as computers did,” 08.28.2015). The real breakthrough was when researchers realized that they could co-opt this naturally occurring system to make their own gene edits and make biomedical use of this “molecular scalpel.”
Already, some people may feel underwhelmed by CRISPR-Cas9 and a little puzzled by its enormous fanfare. Sure, this technology seems groundbreaking, but why should anyone outside the world of the sciences care? Especially for someone who has no interest in the sciences, CRISPR may just sound like one of many scientific breakthroughs we hear about in the news and then forget entirely.
As understandable as that reaction is, CRISPR is absolutely nothing like a passing trend in the scientific community. Let me emphasize: CRISPR allows humans to modify and rearrange DNA–which ultimately determines how the bodies of all living things function–into whatever they desire. Not only that, these changes are permanent, meaning that any tweaking done in an animal or human can be passed down through generations (The Week, “The genetic breakthrough that could change humanity, explained,” 01.16.2016). Think of it as the cut-and-paste tool in Microsoft Word except with the basic building blocks of life instead of numbers and text. A tool of this magnitude, like the modern computer, has infinite possibilities and applications.
In one instance, CRISPR has been shown to be capable of removing the DNA of the virus responsible for causing HIV from the patient’s own genome (Popular Mechanics, “11 Crazy Gene-Hacking Things We Can Do with CRISPR,” 01.26.2016). Researchers are also planning on using CRISPR to treat and even cure blindness (Popular Mechanics). Following an experiment when scientists successfully cut out a genetic mutation responsible for blindness in mice, biotechnology companies such as Editas Medicine started devising a way to use a similar technique on humans. Refining these techniques could result in the end of genetic diseases in general from Huntington’s disease to sickle-cell anemia (The Week).
However, CRISPR-Cas9 is such a powerful biological tool that its applications far exceed the boundaries of the medical field. In fact, scientists have been experimenting with gene editing on a wide range of different areas in order to solve problems that have plagued humankind for centuries.
Just last year, scientists used CRISPR to genetically remove malaria from mosquitoes by modifying their DNA to be resistant to malaria-causing parasites (Popular Mechanics). Those altered genes could then be passed down onto their offspring even after mating with normal mosquitoes, creating a lineage of malaria-free mosquitoes. Gene editing could effectively eradicate the menace of mosquito-transmitted diseases.
Not only that, the entire field of ecology is feeling the shockwaves of CRISPR experiments. Harvard scientist and CRISPR pioneer George Church believes he can use CRISPR to genetically modify endangered Indian elephants into “woolly mammoths” capable of surviving in the freezing wilderness of Siberia (Nature, “Welcome to the CRISPR zoo,” 03.09.2016). Similarly, other scientists have expressed their plans to resurrect extinct species such as the passenger pigeon (Jurassic Park, anyone?). These ideas may teeter on the border of science fiction, but CRISPR makes it possible.
“You’re only limited by your imagination,” stated Dustin Rubinstein, the head of a lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He envisions that CRISPR can transform practically any field or discipline from neuroscience to even energy production (Tech Insider).
This is why CRISPR-Cas9 demands everyone’s attention: Because not only is it powerful, but it’s also incredibly cheap and easy to use. In the past, gene editing cost thousands of dollars. Now, anyone can set up a CRISPR lab for less than $50 (Singularity HUB, “Gene Editing is Now Cheap and Easy–and No One is Prepared for the Consequences,” 09.08.2015). Absolutely anyone can use it for any purpose.
Already, people who have never even heard of gene editing are suddenly thrust into fear and panic thanks to sensationalist headlines and the media warning about the coming dystopian future akin to “Brave New World.” Stories of genetically modified human embryos and animal-human hybrids are causing many people to reject the notion of gene editing entirely without being fully aware of all that CRISPR has to offer. People must not buy into these sensationalist narratives when considering the overarching benefits of CRISPR. A case by case approach, with a strong research background will be far more useful to form future policies and solutions than panic about genetic tools like CRISPR.
CRISPR-Cas9, just like the computer, is an incredible tool that can accomplish practically anything we want. It’s true that several frightening possibilities exist with such incredible technology, but many life-changing opportunities are given as well. Now, we have the chance to beat back cancer at a molecular level, fix the environmental damage we have caused on the planet, eliminate the spread of disease and disability and improve the quality of life for everyone. These are sentiments that, I think, we can all get behind.
However, it’s the responsibility of everyone to be informed of both the scientific and ethical discussions concerning it. The more people fully understand both the benefits and risks of gene editing, the better we can decide as a society to determine a brilliant future full of innovations without the negative influence of lies, ignorance and fear propaganda. Rather than suddenly wake up in a confusing, foreign world, let’s take the time to understand the future that awaits us.