Over recent years, CRISPR gene editing has revealed itself to be an extraordinary technology that may change the course of human history by providing scientists and doctors the ability to change the genetic code of any living thing.
This includes editing various foods to better fight infections, finding new ways to fight diseases in humans, and how to stop hereditary diseases from being transferred to the next generation.
Continue reading to learn exactly what is gene editing, CRISPR, what they’re used for now, and what the future may hold.
What Is Gene Editing?
Gene editing, or genome editing, is the insertion, replacement, or deletion of DNA at a specific point in the genome of an organism or cell. This allows scientists to precisely and efficiently modify DNA within a cell, which means that we can edit the genome of any living thing, including humans.
Using these tools, gene editing is practiced on both animals and plants around the world to improve their welfare, increase productivity, or decrease the amount of inputs. This includes creating salmon that reaches market size twice as fast or mosquitos that are incapable of spreading the malaria parasite.
Did You Know?
46% of U.S. adults say gene editing to give healthy babies a much reduced risk of serious diseases and conditions would change society a great deal.
What Is CRISPR?
CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats, is one tool used for gene editing. More than half of the bacterial world contains CRISPRs and, this tool is how scientists can alter the DNA of any organism.
CRISPR works like the Find and Replace function in Microsoft Word and is a combination of a scissor-like protein, such as Cas9 and a guide molecule, which searches for a specific point in the genome. Once there, Cas9, or other scissor-like proteins, snips out a strand of DNA and the guide molecule replaces it with the new DNA strand.
This technology allows scientists to replace strands of DNA that easily write the code for specific diseases. Currently, this only works on simple diseases that affect one strand or portion of DNA and doesn’t allow scientists to change personality or athleticism, which are pieced together over large portions of DNA.
How Does CRISPR Work?
As a find and replace tool for DNA, CRISPR uses the steps below to change the genome of any living thing.
Step 1: Combine Forces
CRISPR is a combination of a scissor-like protein, such as Cas9, and a guide molecule called RNA.
Step 2: Find and Cut the Right Spot
The RNA molecule takes CRISPR to specific points in the genome, where Cas9 and other scissor-like proteins cut the DNA. This disables the targeted gene, which can cause diseases or other unsavory characteristics.
Step 3: Repairing the DNA
In addition to being a guide, the RNA also carries the replacement DNA. Once the troublesome DNA is cut, the RNA replaces it with the new DNA, which is stitched into place using the DNA’s natural repair machinery.
Crispr Gene Editing and Your Food
Unlike GMO (Genetically Modified Organism), which has had its genomes altered to change characteristics, Crispr doesn’t use plant pathogens to manipulate DNA. As a result, the USDA has given a free regulatory pass to gene-editing crops.
This paves the way for drought-tolerant soybeans and extra starchy corn to ease into your processed food. In fact, the USDA has given free passes to at least a dozen gene-edited crops since 2016.
This means you’ll be able to buy Crispr gene edited foods sooner than you think, such as:
- Mushrooms: Using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, scientists from Penn State University disabled an enzyme that causes white mushrooms to brown, thereby extending its shelf-life.
- Citrus: With a “citrus greening” disease decimating the Florida orange groves, scientists hope that editing the genomes of the trees can make them more resistant to the pathogen that causes the disease.
- Bananas: Similar to citrus, bananas are facing a widespread fungal disease. Australian scientists are now working to produce disease-resistant bananas without having to introduce any new DNA.
- Wheat: Scientists in Spain have successfully modified the genome of wheat, which has produced strains with significantly lower amounts of gluten.
- Cacao: Graduate students at the Innovative Genomics Institute at Berkeley are working with CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna and being funded partly by Mars candy company to edit cacao plant seedlings to withstand viral and fungal attacks.
- Canola: Farmers in North Dakota and Montana are growing canola that a San Diego based company, Cibus, used CRISPR to tweak one letter in the genetic code to create a herbicide-resistant version.
Scientists are working on a number of other foods that can benefit from CRISPR, such as potatoes that are lower in gluten and higher in fiber and soybeans that produce oil that is able to withstand higher cooking heat without producing trans-fat.
How Will We Use the Technology in the Future?
The future of CRIPSR gene editing and other tools have plenty of potential and various applications, but there are still concerns and issues that need to be worked out.
Possible ways we may be able to use CRISPR in the future include:
- Curing disease: Through gene therapy techniques, doctors have been able to treat eye disease and early trials suggest they may be able to treat blood disorders. In fact, doctors may be able to treat heart disease and Alzheimer’s as well.
- Stop inherited disease: Gene editing may be able to eliminate many types of inherited diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, so that a parent doesn’t pass it along to his or her child.
- Agriculture: Science has made it possible to engineer plants to produce the biggest and best fruits and vegetables by replacing the genes and designing plants with the most desirable traits.
- Transplants: While donating organs is a great cause, there simply isn’t enough to go around. Genetic engineering may be able to make “growing” a new organ in a lab so that patients could get the organs they need
- Pharmaceuticals: Genetic engineering can be used to make drugs more effective and safer. For example, there are already improved versions of insulin for diabetes and human growth hormones on the market.
There are many ethical issues that have been raised in regards to fixing the genetic code of people. For instance, some people with disabilities feel like genetic editing is like white-washing what makes them unique to become just like everyone else. As a result, they may not want to be ‘cured’.
What Are the Controversies Surrounding CRISPR Gene Editing?
The main controversy surrounding gene editing is that it might be used to create the “perfect” baby or designer babies. For instance, some scientists believe that it will be relatively easy in the future to choose or manipulate the muscularity, eye color, height, memory, and other traits that are governed by a small number of genes.
However, many feel that this type of genetic enhancement could lead to an even greater separation between the wealthy and the poor, as the wealthy would have more access to gene editing.
Plus, scientists say that the genome is an ecosystem and once you try to maximize one quality, you may affect another one without knowing it.
However, given the option, how many parents could resist attempting to give their children the best start possible? Plus, once these changes enter into one genome, it will be passed along to their children and quickly introduced to other areas of the country, mixing with other traits that had been edited into the gene pool.
While this is the most common ethical debate surrounding CRISPR/Cas9 and other gene editing tools, there are others, such as:
- Saving endangered species: There are some scientists who worry that if we know we’re able to save endangered species, that we may not put in the effort to protect those species while they still have strong numbers.
- Resurrect extinct species: Some organizations are already trying to bring back the passenger pigeon and the whoolly mammoth.
- Create new species: Could a wealthy parent give his daughter a real unicorn? These and other species may be able to be created through gene editing for commercial or artistic purposes.
Over the coming years, we’ll have to decide as a global society what kind of gene editing is acceptable and what types cross the ethical lines, in regards to the DNA of plants, animals, and humans.
Americans Worried and Excited
Two-thirds (68%) of U.S. adults say the prospect of using gene editing to reduce a baby’s risk of serious diseases makes them either “very” or “somewhat” worried, while 49% say they are “very” or “somewhat” enthusiastic about this technology. Three-in-ten adults are both enthusiastic and worried.
Current Legislation Surrounding Gene Editing and CRISPR
Different countries have different levels of legislation regarding gene editing, especially in regards to human embryos.
For instance, in China, there are very few restrictions, providing scientists with the freedom to experiment on human embryos unfettered. However, that is not the case in other countries, such as the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom.
- United States: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not allow public funding for studies that alter genes that can be inherited.
- Canada: Editing genes that can be passed down to future generations is considered a criminal offense that carries a maximum penalty of ten years in jail.
- United Kingdom: In 2016, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority gave a team of scientists in London the license to edit genes in human embryos for the first time, however they are not allowed to continue development.
However, with or without legislation, it will be difficult to control the research and use of this technology, especially as it continues to develop. This will make the debates about ethical gene editing, continued research, and where the government steps in even more feverish in the coming years.
Discover How You Can Enter the Field of Gene Editing
As you can see, once we decide it’s okay to start manipulating the human genetic code, it may be difficult to find the line of what is acceptable and what isn’t. As a result, we’ll have to decide as a society what that line is.
If you’re interested in entering this field, discover masters in public health programs or graduate biology programs to find the perfect program for you. Or check out MPH programs with no GRE requirement.