Brave New World – The Dawn of CRISPR Genetic Engineering

The scientific community recently announced the development of a new process in the field of gene splicing that could change the course of medical treatment, as well as lead to other beneficial uses. The method, called CRISPR-Cas9, invented at UC Berkeley in 2015, uses special types of bacteria and enzymes to replace pieces of RNA and DNA. The technique’s simplicity and efficiency is expected to facilitate genetic engineering for medicine, agricultural and energy production.

What is CRISPR?

CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats.” The complexity of the name alone can make most peoples’ eyes glaze over, but the technique has taken the genetic engineering field by storm. CRISPR relies on prokaryotic DNA, a particular type of cell structure found in bacteria. These bacteria have repeating patterns of DNA that are interspaced with unique sequences found in viruses that are part of human’s natural disease-fighting immune system. CRISPR places pieces of DNA into these special sequenced areas, transcribing them into RNA. Special enzymes that can cut up invading viruses, called “cas,”or “crispr associated genes” are always located near these unique sequences. In collaboration, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier from UC Berkeley found that the specific enzyme called Cas9 is particularly efficient in doing the cut-up operations on genetic sequences. As virus DNA clusters in these special sequence areas, a certain type of enzyme called Cas9 then carries the transcribed RNA through the body, replacing the sequence wherever it finds a match.


Why is CRISPR so Important

In the past, processes to modify genetic sequences have been laborious and costly, which held back the more widespread use of this biotechnology. CRISPR allows a more focused approach that will allow genetic microbiologists to target specific genes easily and in multiple sections. It can be used to cheaply and efficiently cut out detrimental genes from the code and modify them permanently.

Practical Uses for CRISPR

In the field of medicine, CRISPR can be used to alter the course of many genetic diseases by targeting and modifying the genes associated with the disease. It could potentially allow engineering improved heart function and resistance to viruses. In agriculture, CRISPR can be used to eliminate susceptibility to plant diseases such as powdery mildew, which destroys millions of acres of crops each year. In the energy field, CRISPR can be used to alter how algae are produced for a truly sustainable source of energy for the future. The potential uses for CRISPR gene engineering is only beginning to be explored and could change society in profound and exciting ways.

The Known Unknowns and the Unknown Unknowns

Because CRISPR can be used to radical change the structure of living things, more research must be done to ensure that unexpected consequences do not appear because of its use. For example, more studies must be done to ensure that the bacteria used in CRISPR does not mistakenly attack other genes or cause unusual changes in the genetic sequencing other than on targeted sites. If the technique can be used to alter detrimental genes, it can also be used to create advantageous changes, such as “designer babies” with particular eye color, hair color, intelligence level and skills. In addition, genetic alteration is never a simple matter, and the possibility of negative effects must always be taken into account. The ethical considerations of gene alteration must be considered in advance of widespread use of the technique for commercial purposes.

Like many developments today, CRISPR offers a method to improve the health of the human population and assure abundant resources for the future. However, further research is necessary to ensure that its implementation continues to be a help, and not a burden, to the society. For instance, CRISPR-Cas9 inventor Doudna warned of the consequences of editing the human genome and urged the first address the societal and ethical issues of further CRISPR research and clinical applications.