In 1973, the field of biotechnology arose when manipulated DNA was inserted into bacteria by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen. Since this discovery, the process of gene editing has grown more efficient and has scientists excited about its promise in the medical field. Today, a new technology, called CRISPR, has the potential to alter the genomes of cells and organisms faster and cheaper. It is still being researched to determine the possibilities it could possess, but scientists believe that it could be used to cure even the most complicated of genetic diseases. CRISPR has the potential to revolutionize genetic engineering and improve the lives both healthy and sick.
Before CRISPR was discovered, scientist used a different technology called TALENS, proteins that targeted the specific strand of “broken” DNA and cut it out of the double helix. The cell would then replicate the segment of DNA that was inserted into the cell using a virus. However, TALENS was time-consuming and could only alter one strand of DNA. To alter multiple strands, multiple different proteins have to be created to target each individual fragment. This would be enough to cure diseases like Sickle Cell Anemia, which are only mutations in a single gene. However, diseases like Cancer could not be cured through such a method.
For this reason, CRISPR represents an incredible breakthrough. Standing for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repetitions,” the protein involved was discovered as part of the bacterial defense system, which cuts up the DNA from virus attacks. It has the ability to target multiple genes by using an attached strand of RNA. The protein is small and relatively easy to synthesize, resulting in a technique that is both efficient and easy to use. In fact, it has already been used in China to alter the gene myostatin in beagles, which inhibits the production of muscles. By altering this gene, the beagles gained a greater muscle mass than the average breed. Although the process still requires rigorous testing to find if there are any negative effects, CRISPR will soon be used to fix mutated genes that cause diseases in humans, revolutionizing the medical field and dramatically reducing health care costs. The technology offers solutions to problems like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and even obesity.
Although the benefits are abundant, the uses for the technology go beyond the medical field and have resulted in ethical questions. In many ways, CRISPR could allow humans to take control of evolution and increase the rate by which it occurs. Parents could not only alter the faulty DNA of embryos that cause disorders like Down Syndrome, but also alter healthy DNA to “improve” their child. Gene editing will is not yet advanced enough to be used as a weapon to create more deadly bioweapons or super soldiers, but it remains a concern that must be addressed. Even more concerning, CRISPR will result in such a cheap method of gene editing that anyone with knowledge of biology could modify the genome of organisms in their own home. Many organizations believe that it is important to discuss standards and policies that should be put in place before any issues arise. None the less, CRISPR prospective ability to save, elongate, and improve our lives makes it an inevitable part of our future, whether or not we prepared for it.