It outraged scientists across the globe. Media outlets were stunned. In November 2018, a scientist in China, He Jiankui, reported that he had created the world’s first human babies with CRISPR-edited genes: a pair of twin girls resistant to HIV.
The director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, said the experiment was “profoundly disturbing and tramples on ethical norms.” He also added that we need to develop binding international consensus on limits for Jiankui’s research.
For many people, this was the first time they had ever heard of CRISPR. The world-wide spotlight of this gene-editing technology has brought forth many questions but the most imperative question of all is should we applaud it or denounce it?
So what is CRISPR exactly?
To understand what CRISPR is, you first need to comprehend Gene editing. Gene editing is a group of technologies with which scientists have the ability to change a DNA of an organism. This means that genetic material can be added, altered, or removed from particular gene location. The CRISPR-Cas9 system is more efficient than the other current genome editing methods. When the DNA is cut, repair mechanisms of cells start working, introducing mutations or other gene changes.
DID YOU KNOW
CRISPR is short for is short for ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats
History of CRISPR
1987 – CRISPR mechanism is discovered in E. coli bacteria by Japanese scientist, Yoshizumi Ishino.
1993 – 2005 – Francisco Mojica was the first researcher to characterize what is now called a CRISPR. He recognized that what had been reported as disparate repeat sequences actually shared a common set of features, now known to be hallmarks of CRISPR sequences. Mojica also coined the term CRISPR through correspondence with Ruud Jansen in 2002.
2005 – 2007 – Several researchers discover that CRISPR may be a bacterial defense mechanism against viruses that infect bacteria known as phages.
2010 – The basic function and mechanisms of CRISPR systems become clear, after a variety of research groups begin to harness the natural CRISPR system for various biotechnological applications. Scientists develop concept of CRISPR autoimmunity.
2011 – Caribou Biosciences is launched as CRISPR startup to drive the commercialization of applications based on the nucleic acid modification capabilities found in prokaryotic CRISPR systems.
2012 – Biochemists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna publish paper showing that CRISPR could be used for programmable gene editing.
2015 – Researchers announce they have successfully used CRISPR to treat a rare form of muscular dystrophy in mice.
2016 – Researchers demonstrate how they can edit HIV out of human immune cell DNA thus preventing the reinfection of unedited cells. Bill Gates endorses the use of CRISPR technique to create malaria-resistant mosquitoes.
How can we use CRISPR?
There is no denying the importance of CRISPR but there are certainly many discussions around the versatile uses of it.
Editing crops to increase nutrition & survival
With the world population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, improving crop yield is at the top of priority lists. With CRISPR, scientists hope to edit crop genes in order to make them tastier, more nutritious and better survivors of heat and stress. While this technique won’t entirely replace traditional GMO techniques, CRISPR is a versatile new tool that can help identify genes associated with desired crop traits much more quickly.
Stopping genetic diseases
A big reason why Jiankui’s CRISPR-editing of human babies experiment are so controversial is because researchers, who examined the few findings that he publicly released, said the results showed that the babies’ genes were not edited precisely. While scientists have shown that CRISPR can eradicate HIV infections out of T cells, how they will perform inside the human body is a whole other thing. In theory, CRISPR technology should be able to edit the mutations which cause diseases such as hereditary blindness, AIDS, cystic fibrosis, and Huntington’s disease.
Creating new powerful antibiotics and antivirals
Antibiotics are seeing a rapid decline in effectiveness as new strains of bacteria are growing resistant to them. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of California (San Francisco) are studying which genes are targets of specific antibiotics. This study should provide a roadmap for improvements of current antibiotics or the development of new ones.
There are still a few obstacles and ethical considerations to overcome before clinical trials start on human beings. One of the biggest challenges will be to turn this research into real cures as there are many unknowns regarding the potential risks of CRISPR therapy. While CRISPR has strong potential, the question we should be asking ourselves is, are we ready to accept the changes and consequences that come with this type of technology?