Are we on the verge of a genetic engineering revolution?
Last week, Science magazine featured three independent studies describing the use of a revolutionary new genome editing technique to treat an adult mouse suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the first time a genetic disease has been cured in a living adult mammal.
The tech in question is Crispr-Cas9, a new tool for altering DNA that, in the immodest words of Wired, “could eliminate disease… solve world hunger… [and] provide unlimited clean energy.”
All hyperbole aside, it’s distinctly possible we are on the verge of major advances in genetic engineering that are both miraculous and terrifying. So what is Crispr-Cas9?
In the 1980s, scientists began observing bacterial genomes with repeating, palindromic DNA sequences, with unique sequences in between. Hence the name Crispr, an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”. Cas9 is the protein that enables it to work. The gene is capable of removing pieces of DNA at any point in a genome with astonishing precision – it’s commonly described as a word processor for genes.
In 2011, geneticist Emmanuelle Charpentier and research scientist Jennifer Doudna partnered to begin researching the gene. The team soon developed a tool that could edit out any gene they wanted with spectacular ease – according to The New York Times a grad student can master the tech in an hour. Previously, this was a process that could take years, often with uncertain success.
Applications for Crispr technology have already begun appearing in fields as far flung as drug development, biofuel, and laundry detergent. Scientists are now seeking to use the technique on human embryos. In September, a group from The Francis Crick Institute applied to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority to begin research.
And the implications for such developments are not solely ethical, they also concern the survival of our entire ecosystem. “It has to have a fairly high pay-off, because it has a risk of irreversibility — and unintended or hard-to-calculate consequences for other species,” bioengineer George Church told Nature.
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