A CRISP-y matter
Biotechnology is going through a revolution — and, by definition, nobody knows where it is exactly heading. With a recently uncovered technology called CRISPR, we are now able to precisely and relatively easily edit practically any genome, including that of humans.
Genetic engineering techniques that emerged in the 70s comprised a previous (and significant) revolution, which allowed us to produce genetically modified organisms which are now in commercial use. Some of these are still subject of heated debate (e.g., GMO crops). Some others are so unique and irreplacable in their field that there is much less public debate about them (e.g., monoclonal antibodies made by modified organisms, because few people fight against developing cancer drugs). The use of these organisms and techniques in research meant that research itself is now backed, and accelerated by, these very tools.
Modification of cells has been achieved in part by proteins called restriction enzymes. These are molecules that cut DNA at certain points, and thus another, new DNA sequence can be attached to the endpoints of the detached DNA fragments. In another step, the whole thing can be sewed back together, which is done by enzymes of the type called DNA ligase. This (somewhat oversimplified) process is the basis of genetic engineering, and so far, it has been the method of creating new types of cells.
CRISPR is frequently compared to the cut-and-paste nature of our text editors, and it’s often called “molecular scissors” with a reason: there is now a potential to drastically increase speed and efficiency of genetic modification. Science writer Carl Zimmer has a great article about the discovery of CRISPR. He sums up the main difference between these tools as follows:
Restriction enzymes did not evolve to make precise cuts — only to shred foreign DNA. As a result, scientists who used restriction enzymes for biotechnology had little control over where their enzymes cut open DNA. The CRISPR-Cas system […] had already evolved to exert just that sort of control.1
The discovery of CRISPR means a whole new level of precision. The previous techniques could achieve similar results, but only with enormous amount of work and with slow speed. Despite the huge advance, work in the laboratory has not really changed in nature, only in complexity. We are closer and closer to the date when we have to face the ethical issues that, for some time now, we have been avare of, but have failed to completely address. Because no matter what we call it, we are now capable of altering the human genome and, which is more questionable from an ethical point of view, the human germline. In a few decades, we will be able to modify human genes to cure genetic diseases and perhaps eradicate cancer. But we’ll also be able to insert new, desirable traits and enhance existing ones that can be passed down on coming generations. This is why a group of scientists are calling for a moratorium in the biotech industry2,3, until the safety implications of editing germline cells are fully understood.
The Spectator has an interesting short podcast on eugenics. Their argument sounds valid:
Once this technology exists, the rich will take advantage of it. Maybe they won’t be available to use it in the UK, so they will go to Singapore or Hong Kong.
James Watson, who, with Francis Crick, discovered the double-helical structure of the DNA molecule, has some interesting views about editing the human genome (he is a very controversial figure about other topics too). He told The Guardian in 2003, that
If you really are stupid, I would call that a disease… So I’d like to get rid of that…It seems unfair that some people don’t get the same opportunity. Once you have a way in which you can improve our children, no one can stop it. It would be stupid not to use it because someone else will. Those parents who enhance their children, then their children are going to be the ones who dominate the world.
Once this is common pracice, our lives will be inevitably and fundamentally altered. So buckle up and stay healthy, because we are to witness an exciting ride.