Custom genes as easy as custom jeans?
Taryn Zard, Staff Writer
What if picking and choosing which genes you want was as easy as deciding which pair of jeans you think looks best on you? Genetic science has seen a hot new breakthrough in the science world, that ranges from gene therapies to stem cell research and modification. Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) is a tool used by scientists to track a small segment of your genetic code in your DNA. Using CRISPR technology, medical professionals can cut out, add, and even alter portions of your genetic coding. One of the more recent devices is called CRISPR-Cas9, which was developed from a pre-existing enzyme that edits the genomes in bacteria. After capturing a part of the DNA attempting to attack the bacteria, CRISPR would create an “array” that allows the bacteria to remember the virus and variations of it. Because the bacteria recognizes the virus as one from before, the bacteria knows which ribonucleic acid (RNA) segments to release from the CRISPR arrays, attacking the virus.
Using this technology, changes can be made directly to the “bad” segments of genetic coding. There is a bright and shining hope that by altering someone’s genetic code, they can be made resilient to diseases that are often times a death sentence, or at the very least diminish a person’s quality of life. Not only are CRISPR gene editing capabilities hopeful in preventing and diminishing widespread health issues, but there are possibilities for benefits in agriculture. By altering the gene sequence, scientists hope that they can remedy where they have tried to grow crops at a more efficient rate, only to fall short in the abundance and quality, by using CRISPR technology to assure the plants will flourish. Another possibility is putting a stop to animal testing. Müller believes that by using pluripotent stem cells that are extracted from adult organisms, scientists can “study human genes live in tissues resembling those of humans.”
An ethical controversy has been raised regarding eligible alterations, and on whom. Such was the case in China last fall, using CRISPR technology to genetically alter the embryos of twins in China.
According to an article published by the Smithsonian, “last fall, the birth of genetically edited twin girls in China—the world’s first ‘designer babies’—prompted an immediate outcry in the medical science community.”
The attempt was to make the babies HIV/AIDS resilient, but the question has been raised by many worried citizens: where is the line of what should be allowed to alter in people without consent?
In addition to the questions of ethics, there is a widespread concern for how easily genes can be altered. Although the simplicity is handy for many medical advances, there is some trepidation, and for good reason. The ease at which our genetic makeup can be recoded and altered raises the concern for “biohacking.” The groundbreaking solutions that can occur thanks to CRISPR can lead to bioweapons, sickening to fathom. Changing the arrays that make up a virus, no matter how seemingly innocent, can quickly lead to biological warfare. Imagine taking something relatively common and curable and turning it into something so much worse just by a small “edit” in the gene sequence. For example, Mycobacterium is a class of bacteria. Mycoplasma is the most frequent cause of “walking pneumonia,” which can be exceedingly difficult on the lungs if you contract the disease. The bacteria sub classification pales in comparison to others. Mycobacterium Tuberculosis has the same family, the subspecies is different, and the mortality rate is much worse—especially if you contract resilient tuberculosis.
The fact that you can buy a “Do it yourself CRISPR kit” for less than $200 is great cause for concern amongst scientists and consumers alike. Working from their garage or home lab, people have started this “biohacking” with hopes to either understand or eradicate specific bacterium. Unfortunately, with lack of knowledge, their bacteria can easily be contaminated and turned into something much more harmful if altered in a specific fashion. Even with proper knowledge, being able to change DNA so easily is disheartening and scary. Students have been kicked out of science fairs for reckless biohacking. Universities are no exception for the dangers that come with altering genetic makeup. In fact, the University of Alberta recreated a previously eradicated relative to the smallpox disease, the one that won wars by wiping out whole populations. The scariest aspect comes from using the germline and harmful bacteria and viruses. Because of these concerns, California passed a law on July 30 to make selling and obtaining such kits illegal without the label “this kit is not for self-administration.” Although this is the first law in the U.S. to directly mention CRISPR, it’s only one step.