Genetic Engineering : A CRISP(R) Idea

The past few months have gone to show that 2014 to ’16 has in fact been utterly terrible for everyone. The only person who would have probably enjoyed the past three years is Hitler. Why? Well, thanks to the advancements in genetic engineering of course. Here is how the worst genocide in history would have probably gone down in the year 2070: Hitler uses an app that asks him to select the features he wants his children to have. Hitler of course, chooses blond hair, blue eyes, and pale white skin. The labs process the information and give him a healthy baby with the desired characteristics. Everyone’s happy. The end.

While this may sound like science fiction, this is what the near future would look like. In April 2014, scientists Jennifer Doudna from UC Berkley and colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier were working on understanding how bacteria fight off viral diseases. What they discovered by accident, has revolutionized the field of genetic engineering- the CRISPR Cas9 system. So what exactly is this fancy sounding term?

Let’s simplify it. You’re Ash Ketchum and you’re trying to capture a level 10 Geodude with a level 8 Magikarp. You used splash, but nothing happened; you’re now stuck with a fainted Pokémon. After training your Magikarp until it learns new moves, you encounter another Geodude. This time, you remember what the Pokémon is capable of, so you use better moves to capture it. Mission successful. This is exactly what happens when viruses attack bacteria.

      

99% of the time, the attacks lead to the death of the bacterium but 1% of time, the bacterium fights it off. Viruses use the host’s machinery to replicate. What this means is that it incorporates its genes into the host’s DNA so that the host does all the work and makes proteins for it to survive. This is sort of like depending on your roommate to get a good GPA in order to get a good room for the following year. After the attack, if the bacterium survives, it stores a small portion of the pathogen’s DNA (the viral DNA) in a DNA library called Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats or CRISPR. When the virus attacks again, all that the cell does is make an RNA copy of this stored DNA and load it into a protein called Cas9. The Cas9 protein is like a worried mother of a 30 year old single woman. It scans the bacterium’s entire genetic material to find the perfect match. Once found, it simply produces proteins that can cut this viral DNA out of the body making the bacterium healthy again.

How is genetic engineering relevant to us? It has the possibility to do five things:

It can eliminate most genetic diseases and diseases caused by retroviruses (like AIDS).

This can be done by simply removing the undesirable genes causing the disease. Scientists initially experimented on rats by injecting those infected with AIDS with CRISPR. Almost 50% of the affected cells were cured from the disease. Clinical trials have been approved in China and recently in the United States as well.

It can possibly eliminate cancer.

Cancer is like the creepy stalker who refuses to stop sending you good morning messages even after you’ve blocked them. It doesn’t know when to stop. It’s caused when the cell loses the property of finite division and thus divides uncontrollably, forever. CRISPR treatment does not directly affect the cancer cells. What it does is strengthen the immune cells (T-cells) so that they can hunt and destroy these cells before they cause harm to the body. CRISPR treatment trials are being conducted on lung cancer patients to test their viability for the future.

It can slow down or possibly reverse ageing.

Ageing occurs when cells become old and lose their telomeric sequences. What are telomeric sequences? Every time a cell divides, it loses a part of its DNA thus leading to the shortening of DNA length. This could be problematic as vital genes could be lost in the process. Telomeric sequences are meaningless junk sequences added to the ends of the DNA so that its shortening doesn’t affect the individual directly. CRISPR therapy could directly partake in altering cell machinery for the better and help in getting rid of the genes that cause ageing thus slowing it down or even reversing it. Soon, it won’t be uncommon to find your great-great-grandmother sharing a century worth of family gossip at weddings.

It can be used to create designer babies.

If CRISPR could be used to eliminate undesirable genes, why not use genetic engineering to enhance individual traits? Imagine getting to design your baby. Throw in green eyes, husky voice, and everything nice. Genetically engineered babies could initially be engineered to get rid of certain heritable diseases but after advancements in technology there is a possibility to edit genes to such an extent that it could create advanced humans capable of colonizing extra-terrestrial systems by boosting adaptability.

 

Problems related to genetic engineering: The Never Ending Debate

CRISPR Cas9 although a beautiful system, is not unerring. While getting rid of one gene, it may cause a mutation in another leading to a severe problem. Is it worth the risk? What if down the genetic line after several generations, there is some violent mutation that kills the entire human species at an alarming rate? The uncertainty related to genetic engineering cannot be ignored completely.

According to Darwin, all life on Earth follows the principle of natural selection. If organisms are genetically modified, this could create a disturbance in nature’s balance leading to over population and eventual extinction. Furthermore, if genetically modified organisms are the new standard, wouldn’t life be monotonous? Wouldn’t the current human race perish? Wouldn’t those who decide against genetically modifying themselves or their children potentially be preventing their child from the cure of an otherwise deadly disease? The ethicality of genetic engineering has been debated for several years and only educating people about the pros and cons can lead to a widespread consensus on the matter.

 

 

Sources: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAhjPd4uNFY

http://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-crispr-cas9

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SuAxDVBt7kQ

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/346/6213/1258096.full

 

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  • Karan Gera

    Well, you’re right. CRISPR/Cas9 does indeed have a lot of potential in terms of whole genome editing. Here in my graduate school at Iowa state, a lot of people are working on it. The major problems however, are scale-up, non-specificity issues and reciprocation in in vivo subjects. Still, we’re getting there!

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