There are certain things we take for granted over which we have control. What we eat for dinner, what shows we binge watch, with whom we spend time, and even what blogs we read—but how about your DNA? While it may seem far-fetched, science has given us the keys to unlock and manipulate the most basic building blocks of life through CRISPR.
But, you may ask, what is CRISPR? CRISPR, which stands for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” is a tool that allows for manipulation of DNA. Think of it as a genetic cut and paste system. CRISPR allows scientists to snip segments of targeted DNA and rewrite them. The system paves the way for the removal of some of the world’s most devastating genetic diseases . . . or things that are a bit more lighthearted, like bio-luminescent Christmas trees.
These special conifers, in a method discovered by scientists in the U.K., would have firefly proteins added to the tree’s genome. The proposed effect would be a Christmas tree that glows at night without any help from electrical lights. They are not available for purchase yet, but all signs point to this being the first in a list of genetically-tailored plants or products whose purpose is driven by aesthetics, as opposed to medical benefits.
For those in parts of the world plagued by insect pests, more practical applications of CRISPR are being used to improve health conditions, by reducing exposure to disease.
For example, to better control the mosquito populations that carry deadly diseases, like malaria, scientists at UC San Diego and US Berkley have found a way to ensure that only sterile males are born. The process involves altering the fertility of mosquitoes in a lab setting, then releasing them into the wild. CRISPR genetic alteration, as opposed to chemical methods of insect sterilization, creates a more ecologically friendly and cost-effective alternative.
CRISPR is a powerful tool; and with great power, such as the ability to control the human genome, comes great ethical implications.
One of the most controversial gene editing experiments to date occurred in China through a CRISPR study that attempted to produce immune resistance to the HIV virus in humans. A scientist named He Jiankui at a Chinese university headed a team of researchers who edited several human twin embryos with CRISPR technology—a study which resulted in the first birth of genetically modified human babies.
While the study claimed the success of the experiment, in that the babies had immune resistance to HIV, the implication of editing a baby with no ability to consent left the scientific community reeling. There is no way to know the long-term effects of a procedure like this—and it may very well be too late for the edited babies if there are any negative side effects. Jiankui is currently facing scrutiny not only from fellow scientists, but Chinese authorities as well.
The scientific community and governments have many ethical decisions ahead of them with regard to how CRISPR is used. How do we make use of this powerful technology with the ability to custom tailor our very genetic make-up? How do we manage the trade-offs between the ability to preemptively cure deadly diseases with the possible long-term effects?
The future is unclear for human use of CRISPR, but it’s somewhat reassuring to know that testing is taking place at a non-human level. At the very least, and not to make light of this at all, we may not need to buy new Christmas lights for our trees next year! This science is one of many things that we are continuing to keep an eye on, as we monitor our cultural and the many influences we all face on a daily basis.
You can read about this and other topics like it in our Q42018 report, here.