We now have the technology to re-write the genetic code of all the living organisms in the world like we’re editing text in a Word document.
What is CRISPR and How it Works?
In the ’70s, scientists discovered a pattern of DNA in bacteria called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). This pattern was a bacterial immune system that contained information on all the viruses the bacteria had been exposed to. Rodolphe Barrangou, the scientist working on this project, immediately realised he could eliminate the virus and strengthen the immune system of the bacteria.
In 2012, a team of geneticists led by Jenifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, tested if they could take a part of the virus, alter its DNA and insert it back in the CRISPR gene. Scientists customised the RNA cells to guide the enzyme Cas9 to cut the DNA exactly where it had to be modified. The DNA of the bacteria knew precisely where it was infected with the virus and what type of virus it was. This technique was later used to modify any living cell. CRISPR is the most advanced gene editing technology available today. What in the past scientists struggled to achieve in two years, today, with CRISPR-Cas9 is possible in two days.
What Are the Applications of CRISPR?
CRISPR-Cas9 can be used to treat diseases by correcting genetic mutations. Scientists found over 3000 genetic diseases that can be cured with CRISPR-Cas9. The principle is simple: scientists “extract” a couple of sick cells, modify them genetically and then insert them back in the cell.
Pharmaceutical companies are interested in this technology to create cancer-fighting viruses and to personalise medicine treatment. More recently, scientists discovered a patient with a microdeletion in a FAAH pseudogene, that made her insensitive to pain, anxiety or depression. Many saw this case as another strong argument for why we should use gene editing. Altering a gene can transform the way we experience the world which can lead to a considerable upgrade in life quality.
One of the most controversial applications of CRISPR is the editing of human embryos. The child will be immune to inheritable diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes but also to many forms of cancer. Moreover, parents may choose the child to have specific characteristics that boost performance, endurance, and creativity. The DNA of the so-called designer babies will be copied into every cell and transmitted to the next generation. Does this mean that we now have the technology to create a new breed of humans?
In November 2018, a Chinese scientist named He Jiankui disclosed that two CRISPR babies had been born. He genetically modified their embryos to suppress the CCR3 gene to make them HIV resistant. Needless to say, this had severe consequences on his academic and medical career. A special committee in China condemned his acts as unethical and illegal, and he is now facing legal charges.
What is a gene drive?
A gene drive guarantees that a particular gene gets passed on to the next generation. Which means that if we modify a gene that creates a certain disease, we can eradicate that diseases forever. A thousand kids die every day from malaria transmitted by mosquitoes. If gene editing in mosquitoes would be legal, we could avoid the deaths of thousands of people around the globe. However, it also means that gene drives are “the enabling force” that can eliminate entire species out of the face of Earth.
Since CRISPR started to gain momentum, scientists have worked closely with governments and bioethicists to discuss how to regulate the new scientific developments in the field of gene editing. The current technology poses many threats to the future of humanity. For instance, if we were to wipe out the “pain gene”, maybe we could also create a new species of superhumans, geniuses but also agents of mass destruction.
Moreover, if Lulu and Nana were designed to be not only HIV immune but also super intelligent, athletic, creative and highly capable in everything they do, maybe we’ll have to invent new words for competition, ambition and determination because the ones we use now would have lost their meaning.
We’ve reached the point where we can edit our DNA. A simple search on the internet reveals hundreds of improvised biohacking labs ready to ship you a kit with everything you need to edit your genes. The risk is that, by making this kind of technology available to everyone, instead of choosing to augment our capacity to focus and be more productive, we’ll buy CRISPR kits from some garage, to build bigger muscles.