What is CRISPR? Who developed it and who is collaborating with and funding CRISPR research?
Most new technologies have little impact on our day-to-day lives, but occasionally, a technology comes along that has the potential to completely change the trajectory of human civilisation. Thomas Edison did it with the light bulb, Steve Jobs with the iPhone and CRISPR could do it with the genetic material that contains the blueprint for life, DNA. CRISPR technology not only has the power to completely change our lives but also to redefine life itself.
CRISPR is a gene-editing tool that can precisely edit the genome of biological organisms from plants to pigs to people. The technology acts like a pair of molecular scissors that can add, remove, or alter the DNA sequence.
The concept of manipulating genetic code may sound like something out of a science fiction film, but surprisingly the science behind the technology is a relatively common, naturally occurring process. CRISPR was discovered in bacteria and archaea, functioning as an immune system designed to fight off invading viruses.
The discovery was primarily made by two scientists who pioneered the revolutionary gene-editing technology. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna both won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 for their ground-breaking work on CRISPR. However, as with most scientific discoveries, there were other key contributors to the development of CRISPR, most notably Feng Zhang, George Church, and Virginijus Siksnys.
CRISPR is the simplest, fastest, and most inexpensive gene-editing tool ever developed, and the excitement surrounding its potential applications has attracted some big money. Many of the founding scientists have patents on the technology and have started companies that received financial backing from varying sources, ranging from large pharmaceutical companies, and venture capitalists, to the educational institutions they hail from. Governments around the world are also pouring funds into CRISPR research
What problems can CRISPR potentially solve?
There is no shortage of problems that CRISPR could potentially solve. Essentially, any problem that relates to genetics falls into CRISPR’s scope of possibilities. There are three key problems this technology could be focused on solving.
Firstly, the eradication of genetic diseases. Genetic diseases are caused by harmful gene variants in our DNA. CRISPR could be used to remove the harmful gene variant from the DNA and insert a healthy variant in its place. This could potentially prevent or cure any given genetic disease.
Secondly, enhancing the world’s food supply. The planet’s food systems are under increasing pressure due to climate change and population growth. CRISPR could help mitigate these pressures by editing the genomes of plants to develop drought-resistant crops and prolong the shelf life of fruits and vegetables.
Finally, fighting infectious diseases. CRISPR has given scientists a tool that allows them to better understand pathogens. This could lead to the development of innovative tools to diagnose and treat infections.
CRISPR has the potential to fix harmful mutations in our DNA that cause genetic diseases. It also gives scientists a powerful new weapon to go on the offensive, changing the genome of food crops to better suit current conditions and combatting human pathogens with genetic warfare. The power to change the structure of the world around us has almost limitless potential in our ability to solve problems.
What are the current applications of CRISPR technology?
CRISPR is fast, easy, and cheap. These factors combined with its almost infinite potential have led to it being widely and rapidly adopted in research labs across the globe. There are currently many wide-ranging studies being conducted with CRISPR. The gene-editing technology is regularly used in labs to alter genes in plants, bacteria, and animal models in order to directly observe what traits and behaviours are affected. Furthermore, CRISPR is currently being used to experiment with gene-edited mosquitoes to combat the spread of malaria and genetically engineer crops to withstand climate change. It is also being used in a host of clinical trials on humans and the number of clinical trials is increasing every year.
How does CRISPR impact the future of gene editing?
Gene editing is not a new concept. Scientists have been editing the genes of plants, animals, and humans for decades, but there were several major problems with gene editing technology prior to the development of CRISPR. The process was simply too time-consuming and expensive to be of practical use in treating most diseases or to be effectively utilized in research. Furthermore, there was also an issue with the accuracy, prior technologies were simply unable to reliably recognize the target region on the DNA. CRISPR addresses all these problems. It has revolutionized gene editing by making it cost-effective, time efficient, and accurate. This will allow scientists to rapidly translate their research into transformative therapies in a way that was not possible before.
What are the ethical concerns related to the implementation of CRISPR in gene editing?
CRISPR may be revolutionary but that doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns. There are many ethical questions raised by such a cheap, easy-to-use gene editing tool. For example, is the generation and release of genetically modified organisms into the environment ethical? There are many historical examples of humans introducing change into an ecosystem to solve a problem, only for it to have unintended negative consequences down the line. Furthermore, the affordability of CRISPR home kits may lead to an unqualified person making alterations to the DNA of an animal or person in a completely unregulated way. Additionally, the precision of this technology could lead to the gene editing of human embryos. This raises many ethical questions relating to consent, safety, and the creation of engineered ‘designer babies.’
As with many new technologies, there is a concern that access to the benefits of CRISPR therapies will be accessible only to the wealthy, enhancing existing disparities. The difference is that CRISPR will introduce a whole new cast of disparities that will provide the people who can access it with a huge genetic advantage.
CRISPR has revolutionized gene editing technology by solving many of the obstacles that limited previous gene editing tools and as research continues, our understanding and refinement of CRISPR will only continue to unlock its potential.
CRISPR has facilitated a new array of possibilities for the future. The power to manipulate DNA is the power to manipulate the very design of life itself. The decisions we make regarding how to utilize this will determine whether the outcome is good or bad.