The age of gene editing is upon us! Or it will be soon thanks to the revolutionary new technology known as CRISPR. I would be VERY surprised if you haven’t at least heard of it by now, especially when you consider the attention it gets from the science media. Attention that is very understandable once you start looking at exactly what this technology can do, and what that potentially means.
The story began in 2013, when some researchers claimed that they had used CRISPR-Cas9 to successfully slice the genome in human cells at sites of their choosing. This understandably triggered a massive ethics debate which is still going on today. A huge amount of the conversation focussed on how it could be used to fight genetic diseases or even edit human embryos, but there are many more potential applications. As the debate continued, researches set about editing the genomes of many other organisms, including plants and animals, and even exploring it’s potential for studying specific gene sequences. The range of applications is truly remarkable.
Some claim that the real revolution right now is in the lab, where CRISPR has made the study of genetics significantly easier. There are two main components to the CRISPR-Cas9 system: a Cas9 enzyme that acts as a pair of molecular scissors, cutting through the DNA strand, and a small RNA molecule that directs the system to a specific point. Once the cut is made, the cell’s own DNA repair mechanisms will often mend it, but not without making the occasional mistake.
Even a small error during DNA repair can completely alter the structure of the protein it codes for, or stop it’s production altogether. By exploiting these traits and errors, scientists can study what happens to a cell or organism when a specific gene or protein is altered. Such a level of control will likely make these studies less prone error, and lead to a much better understanding of the role played by specific genes and proteins.
But it doesn’t stop there! There exists a second repair mechanism that mends the DNA strand according to a template provided by the cell. If the researchers were to remove this template and provide one of their own, then they could potentially insert nearly any DNA sequence at whatever site they desire. A prospect that would allow genomes to not just be edited, but actively designed.
That idea may sound somewhat futuristic at this point, but in reality it’s already being put to use. Due to the relative precision and ease that CRISPR offers, scientists have already made a start on editing the genes of animals for applications ranging from agriculture to the revival of extinct species. Some CRISPR modified animals are even being marketed as pets! As you can imagine, regulators are still working out how to deal with such animals, as there are some obvious safety and ecological concerns, but that hasn’t stopped the science from happening.
Disease resistance is one of the more popular uses for CRISPR, and it can provide a variety of agricultural and ecological benefits. For example, there is hope that such an application could help stem the huge loss of honey bee populations around the world. This loss can in part be attributed to disease and parasites, but biotechnology entrepreneur Brian Gillis may have found a solution. He has been studying the genomes of so-called “hygienic bees”, which get their name from their obsessive hive cleaning habits and removal of sick or infested larvae.
Gillis’ idea states that, if genes responsible for this behaviour can be identified, they could then be edited into the genomes of other populations and significantly improve hive health. But whether or not this can be done remains to be seen, as no such genes have been found as of yet, and the roots of the behaviour may prove to be much more complex. At this point we’ll just have to wait and see.
Another potential application, one that I personally find much more interesting, is the revival of extinct species. Around 4000 years ago the woolly mammoth went extinct, an event that was at least partially due to hunting by humans. Well it now looks like we might be able to make up for that mistake! This is thanks to scientist George Church from Harvard Medical School in Boston, who has plans to use CRISPR to bring back this long lost species. He hopes to transform some endangered Indian Elephants into a breed of cold resistant elephants that will closely resemble the mammoth, and release them into a reserve in Siberia where they will have space to roam.
But the process of editing, birthing, and then raising these mammoth-like elephants is no easy task. The first problem is how to go from an edited embryo to a developed baby, and Church has said it would be unethical to implant the embryos into endangered elephants for the sake of an experiment. Since that option is off the table, his lab is currently looking into the possibility of an artificial womb; a device that does not currently exist.
It’s worth pointing out that I’ve just barely scratched the surface of what CRISPR can do for animals, let alone the many other organisms it can be applied to. I could very easily write an entire post about it to be honest, but there is one final point the definitely deserves some attention. We’ve already seen how amazingly versatile CRISPR is, and it stands to reason that, if you can edit the genomes of animals in this way, you can almost certainly do the same to humans.
As I’m sure you can imagine, there is a very heated debate about how it could and should be used to modify the genomes of human embryos. One key argument for is that many currently available technologies already allow parents to do this. These include prenatal genetic screening to check for conditions like down syndrome, and in-vitro fertilisation allowing parents to select embryos that don’t have certain disease-causing mutations. Once could say that direct genome editing is simply the next step in technology of this nature.
On the other hand, one needs to consider what genome editing would mean for society as a whole. For example, by allowing parents to edit out traits they see as debilitating, we could potentially create a less inclusive society. In such a world even the tiniest of flaws might be seen as a huge disadvantage, with everyone being subjected to much harsher judgement. Would that be beneficial for the human race? Unfortunately that’s not a question we can answer, but it doesn’t sound like a pleasant world to live in.
Whether or not you’re in favour of the human race dictating the genetics and characteristics of future generations seems to be a matter of opinion right now, but it’s certainly not fair to say that either side of the debate outweighs the other. To me, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious answer. On the one hand, we have the chance to truly improve the human race by ensuring the we continue to improve and adapt as time goes on, assuming of course that we have the knowledge to do so. But I cannot say for sure what type of society that would create, or if it’s one I’d really like to live in.
Regardless of your opinion on CRISPR and gene editing, you can’t deny that this new technology has the potential to completely change our world and our society. Given that it can improve our understanding of genetics and allow us to physically alter the DNA of living creatures, one could easily describe it as the beginning of a genetic revolution. We’ll have to just wait and see if it will be put to use in the ways I’ve explored here, but it’s certainly something I will be keeping an eye on. Hopefully I got you interested enough to do the same.
- Check Hayden, E. (2016). Should you edit your children’s genes?. Nature, 530(7591), 402-405. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/530402a
- CRISPR everywhere. (2016). Nature, 531(7593), 155-155. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/531155a
- Ledford, H. (2016). CRISPR: gene editing is just the beginning. Nature, 531(7593), 156-159. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/531156a
- Reardon, S. (2016). Welcome to the CRISPR zoo. Nature, 531(7593), 160-163. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/531160a