The History of Genetic Engineering:
-Humans have been genetically engineering life for millennia. Humans originally bred useful traits in animals and plants through a process of selective breeding and did so for many thousands of years.
-All of this changed when scientists discovered DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, which is the code of life. It’s a complex molecule found in every cell that controls the growth, function and reproduction of humans and of everything else alive. As soon as this molecule was discovered by scientists, we immediately tried to manipulate it to best serve our needs. Ever since, we’ve been innovating and trying to exploit this molecule to best serve our needs.
-Today, genetic engineering has a huge impact on our life. To make our food, we have genetically modified animals and plants: extremely muscular cows, featherless chickens, fast-growing fish, bigger carrots and tomatoes and tastier wheat. People industrially produce chemicals using microbes such as insulin, testosterone and human growth hormone, things we used to have to slaughter animals to get. We have fish that glow in the dark, transparent frogs and even cows that supposedly produce less methane.
What makes CRISPR so revolutionary?
-Gene editing used to be extremely expensive, time-consuming and complex until very recently. CRISPR, standing for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a revolutionary new technology that has just entered the stage. It is a new form of genetic engineering and has unparalleled consequences and implications. Suddenly, the cost of genetic engineering is only 1% of what it used to be. It now only takes a few weeks to conduct genetic engineering experiments, instead of several months. CRISPR is a new technology and so far, has not made a big enough impact to become well-known. Despite this, it is a huge technical revolution and CRISPR quite literally has the potential to change the course of humanity forever.
How does CRISPR work?
-There’s been an age-old war raging for hundreds of millions of years between bacteria and viruses, or bacteriophages to be more precise. Bacteriophages hunt bacteria and kill them. However, if a bacterium successfully repels a bacteriophage’s attack, it saves the virus’s DNA in CRISPS, which is similar to a DNA archive.
-When the same bacteriophage attacks, the bacterium makes a copy of RNA from CRISPR and arms a protein called CAS-9, which is the bacteria’s weapon against the virus. The protein scans all of the genetic material inside the bacterium, comparing it to the RNA sample it has got from CRISPR, until it finds a match. When it does find a match, it cuts out and destroys the virus DNA, remo§ving the danger.
-How is this useful to us? CAS-9 is extremely precise and it turns out that this system is programmable. The CRISPR system can be given a copy of DNA that someone wants to modify and once put into a living system, it will proceed to modify the genetic material.
-CRISPR is so revolutionary because it is cheap and rapid to programme and not particularly complex. It can also edit and alter live cells, not just dead ones, and more importantly, it turns out that CRISPR works for every single type of cell, whether animal, bacterial or human.
-CRISPR has already been used by scientists to do a lot of experiments. In 2015, scientists used the CRISPR system to cut out the HIV virus from cells in patients. In 2016, they then carried out a large clinical trial where they managed to remove over 50% of HIV from fully infected rats simply by injecting CRISPR into their tails. At other times, the technology has been successfully used to treat cancer, among other things.
-Scientists are trying to adapt and improve the current CRISPR technology to make it more suited to our needs. They’re currently building a modified version of the CAS-9 protein that will soon be able to eradicate genetic diseases in embryos. Scientists can actually already edit genetic data in a human embryo, though the technology is only in early development and still not perfect. Chinese scientists have so far been successful on occasions when genetically engineering embryos, but the technology still has a long way to go.
Could CRISPR mean the end of disease?
-In order to truly understand the revolution that’s just about to occur with CRISPR, it’s best to compare it to computers in the 1980’s. Back then, people thought that computers would just be a phase and they had no idea just how much computers would change their lives: from dating to school, shopping and social media.
-CRISPR has the potential to be able to eliminate the threat of cancer in the future. Cancer happens when cells go rogue and start multiplying uncontrollably. There is serious potential to create CRISPR technology that could be used to edit immune cells and make them better at killing cancer. It’s possible that a couple of engineered cell injections in the future could make someone safe from cancer.
-CRISPR might also soon cure retroviruses, such as HIV or Herpes. It may also soon eliminate all genetic diseases. By editing out incorrect sequences in DNA in reproductive cells or embryos, thousands of genetic diseases could forever be eliminated. Once they’re eliminated within the human gene pool, they would only resurface if people’s DNA mutated, at which point those mutations could be isolated and healed with CRISPR.
-At first, people will argue that not using genetic modification is unethical since it can prevent human suffering and slowly we’ll start to change ourselves more and more. Disease will be eradicated first. Then perhaps people will get enhanced metabolisms. Then perhaps perfect eyesight… bigger muscles, a full head of hair, superior intelligence, no mental problems… the list goes on and on. Once we create the first modified human, a door will have been opened that we can never shut. The future of humanity will forever be altered.
-There are so many fascinating implications of CRISPR and of genetic engineering and the onset of this technology is more or less inevitable, which is why it’s important to inform people and to have a conversation about it now. The possibilities for this technology are endless and may seem like science fiction, until they turn out to be reality.