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.
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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.

Author's Note: How CRISPR Gene Editing Works

Writing articles like this scares me. This technology is so, so exciting. The implications generally seem so very cool, but it also feels like we have started to figure out so much about how to manipulate life with technology that we're bound to screw up at some point. CRISPR gives us so much power — and in ways that we can't anticipate. The world works well, you know? Messing with it is just scary. Then again, how could we ignore such a powerful technique that could help us in so many ways?

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Sources

  • Brennan, Zachary. "Human Gene Editing, CRISPR and FDA: How Will They Mix?" Regulatory Affairs Professional Society. Dec. 2, 2015. (April 29, 2016) http://www.raps.org/Regulatory-Focus/News/2015/12/02/23708/Human-Gene-Editing-CRISPR-and-FDA-How-Will-They-Mix/
  • Brown, Kristen V. "Inside the garage labs of DIY gene hackers, whose hobby may terrify you." Fusion. March 29, 2016. (April 13, 2016) http://fusion.net/story/285454/diy-crispr-biohackers-garage-labs/
  • Ledford, Heidi. "CRISPR, the disruptor." Nature. Volume 522. Pages 20-24. 2015.
  • Ledford, Heidi. "CRISPR, the disruptor." Nature. Volume 522. Pages 20-24. 2015. http://www.nature.com/news/crispr-the-disruptor-1.17673
  • Maxmen, Amy. "The Genesis Engine." Wired. August 2015. (April 13, 2016) http://www.wired.com/2015/07/crispr-dna-editing-2/
  • Radiolab. "Antibodies Part 1: CRISPR" June 6, 2015. (April 13, 2016) http://www.radiolab.org/story/antibodies-part-1-crispr/
  • Regalado, Antonio. "Who Owns the Biggest Biotech Discovery of the Century?" MIT Technology Review. Dec 4, 2014. (April 19, 2016) https://www.technologyreview.com/s/532796/who-owns-the-biggest-biotech-discovery-of-the-century/
  • Petree, Jessica. Graduate Student in Chemistry, Emory University. Personal correspondence. April 13, 2015.
  • Stoye, Emma. "Crispr-edited mushroom dodges regulation." Chemistry World. April 26, 2016. (April 29, 2016) http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/2016/04/crispr-gene-editing-mushroom-dodges-gmo-regulation
  • Zimmer, Carl. "Breakthrough DNA Editor Born of Bacteria." Quanta Magazine. Feb 6, 2015. (April 13, 2016) https://www.quantamagazine.org/20150206-crispr-dna-editor-bacteria/

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