We’re a long way away from complete control over the human genome, but recent breakthroughs have shaken up the scientific community and drastically sped up genetic research.
I’m referring to CRISPR-Cas9, the genome editing tool that has contributed to our understanding of genetics while spawning some measure of controversy. Almost immediately, some objected to CRISPR on the grounds that it could lead to “designer babies,” children given desirable traits through genetic manipulation.
I just want to lead by saying that this is a far-off possibility; rather, I’d like to take a look at what CRISPR has done and become in its short period of existence.
Currently hotly debated in court over patent rights, CRISPR was discovered both by Jennifer Doudna at the University of California and Feng Zhang at the Broad Institute at MIT. Determining ownership is difficult, not only because both parties created their own distinct inventions, but because CRISPR, though referred to as a “tool,” has always existed in nature.
I won’t delve too deep into the details, but CRISPR allows us to cut and replace sections of DNA by manipulating an enzyme (Cas9) to remove relevant bits of DNA before bonding strands back together with an RNA sequence. This gives scientists and researchers a level of precision and alacrity in genetic research that has yet to be surpassed.
For example, when trying to induce mutations in mice for research purposes, stem cell manipulation followed by generations of breeding would normally be necessary. Now, it’s possible to inject the CRISPR sequence into an embryo to allow for testing in one generation. It’s not only more efficient, it requires less time and fewer mice to make it work.
With the sheer potential surrounding this discovery, it’s no surprise that ownership rights have become contested. Companies are throwing investment money behind one of the three (possibly four) companies involved, despite the fact that it could very well lose them money if they back the wrong figurative horse. But given the recency and potency of this technology, committing too late could mean losing any stake in future developments.
It’s certainly already brought ample attention to the scientists that have discovered it; Doudna has already received multiple awards for her work in discovering CRISPR, examining its role in microbes, with buzz that she might win the Nobel Prize.
If she wins the rights to the patent, that is.
There’s certainly a lot more research to be done; the mechanics of how CRISPR functions are still poorly understood. Still, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, researchers are working on finding applications for the tech. One of the most prominent applications is agricultural manipulation; as CRISPR is not limited to any specific set of organisms, it could theoretically be used to make better crops. Pharmaceutical companies have discussed using CRISPR to trick the immune system into attacking tumors and cancers cells. Other scientists are attempting to work with elephant DNA to recreate the wooly mammoth.
But don’t throw on your Jurassic Park shirts just yet; any progress will inevitably be tempered by the need to establish codes of ethics for this groundbreaking technology. Worth noting is that any modification in germline cells will be passed down from generation to generation, so special care must be taken when undertaking certain types of genetic manipulation.
The good news is that treating some diseases doesn’t carry the same risk; and CRISPR has been used in a very limited capacity to treat special case patients.
In the future, however, it could mean altering entire ecosystems rather than just curing disease.
That’s really the core of what CRISPR means for our scientific progress; it’s not just about applications, but advancements. This is a whole new frontier for our ecosystem and society, and strong stewardship is critical in ensuring that it is guided in the right direction.