Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How CRISPR Gene Editing Works


Designer Babies, Invasive Mutants and DIY Biology
Could someone use CRISPR technology to resurrect the woolly mammoth by injecting a segment of its DNA into an elephant's DNA? It hasn't happened yet but that's just one concern some scientists have.
Could someone use CRISPR technology to resurrect the woolly mammoth by injecting a segment of its DNA into an elephant's DNA? It hasn't happened yet but that's just one concern some scientists have.
Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

CRISPR technology is so relatively new that the scientific community has yet to fully understand all of its power. But one thing is for sure — they know its capability to impact the human race may be unmatched by any other biotechnology. With that great potential, the need to develop regulations around its use is imperative. But the breakneck pace at which research is being conducted in the lab has left little time for discussion of what the rules around research and use should be. It sounds great that CRISPR can cut away bad, unwanted genes and replace them with more desirable ones. But who is to say what is bad and what is good?

Without any regulations, CRISPR could be developed to the point where it can safely be used on a human embryo to alter its DNA. Would any parent say no to CRISPR if they learned their child had the gene for Huntington's disease and that CRISPR could remove it before the baby was born? And if we allowed parents to make these decisions about messing with their baby's DNA before he or she is born, where would that stop? Could they decide to make their baby tall instead of short? Blond instead of brunette? The changes that parents could choose to impart on their child would be permanent ones that would be passed down through generations. If this scenario plays out, it is easy to see how it could further the divide between have and have-nots. And we don't know what might happen in the long term to a child whose genes are replaced.

CRISPR is so cheap that even do-it-yourself biologists are tinkering with the technology in their makeshift home laboratories, which could have some very bad results. With CRISPR, people could possibly create species-specific bioweapons, easily clearing the planet of entire species. They could go back in time and resurrect extinct creatures or create invasive mutant species that can survive unchecked in new environments. Playing with species populations in this way can disrupt entire ecosystems with unknown consequences.

In December 2015, a group of scientists, bioethicists and policy experts from different countries met to talk about regulating human gene editing. One U.S. expert mentioned that the Food and Drug Administration needed to not just regulate the technology but specific uses of it to prevent off-label use. She also mentioned that there might be more risk from editing plant genes than from editing human genes [source: Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society].

With the great power of this technology, questions about CRISPR need to be addressed separately from ones about genetically modified organisms. Getting everyone across the world on the same page, however, will continue to be a challenge.