The movie “Captain America” shows a scrawny young soldier injected with a growth serum that grants him extraordinary strength and vitality. He uses his enhanced toughness to defeat Nazi Germany and save the world from the vestiges of evil.
Now while we are yet to come up with superhuman injections, we have discovered a technology that can “design” human beings. By making changes at the genomic level, we can get rid of hereditary maladies in human embryos and engineer stronger human beings with improved cognitive abilities.
It is called CRISPR Cas9.
What is CRISPR Cas9?
CRISPR cas9, known commonly as CRISPR, is a gene editing system that can make precise alterations in an organism’s genome. It uses naturally occurring proteins in bacteria to make these changes, giving one unprecedented control over an organism’s genetic code.
To understand CRISPR, we must take a brief biology lesson.
Every living organism on earth is defined by its genes. These genes live on long strands of chemicals known as DNA. Cells use our DNA to grow and function, much like an instruction manual to life. All of our traits, functions and physical characteristics can be boiled down to our DNA, precisely its arrangement.
Now CRISPR (Clustered Random Interspaced Palindromic Repeats) is a system bacteria use to fight viruses.
When a virus invades a bacteria, it attempts to take control of the organism by releasing its DNA into the cell. It hopes to integrate its DNA with that of the bacteria, which would make the bacteria produce more virus particles (viroids).
To tackle this, the bacteria use Cas proteins (CRISPR Associated Proteins) to cut the viral DNA into pieces. It identifies particular locations on the viral DNA and severs it, thereby destroying it. (Watch this video)
Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier have figured out how these Cas proteins identify particular sequences of DNA and have harnessed this ability. They can use it to cut and then edit DNA wherever they want.
I’ll explain this with an analogy. Think of DNA as a book. Scientists can open this book and switch out specific words, altering sentences by changing their meaning or rendering it meaningless. Like the “Find and Replace” option in Microsoft Word, precise alterations can be made to suit the writer’s wish.
By deliberately inducing these changes, they alter the meaning of the sentences, thereby altering the book. And when this happens, people read the book differently.
The background behind the discovery
CRISPR was discovered when scientists were studying the defence mechanism of bacteria. Dr Jennifer Doudna and Dr Emmanuelle Charpentier, 2011 set out to understand the function of the Cas9 protein in bacteria. At the time, they did not know they were on the brink of such a huge discovery.
After the results were made public, it sparked several debates worldwide. People began to ponder over its potential for goodness and harm.
In 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui caused controversy when he attempted to create babies that did not succumb to HIV when one of the parents had the disease. This move was quite early in the field, drawing criticism from all over. As far as I know, the current health status of the babies is unknown.
Armed with this new power, scientists can create plants that produce higher yields and are pest-resistant. They can configure mosquitos that can’t transmit disease and destroy drug-resistant cancer cells.
CRISPR holds power to get rid of genetic conditions that could otherwise hinder the person later in life. We’re talking AIDS, blood disorders, neurodegenerative and muscular diseases, and much more. Babies, who would have otherwise been doomed to lives of shuddering, can now be given a chance at lives of comfort.
In the coming years, many of the foods we consume will be CRISPR-edited crops that yield better, are drought resistant, and are more nutritious. These crops use fewer chemical additives, making them more accessible to farmers. We already farm such crops as I write this article.
I must mention that CRISPR differs from GMOs, whereby in GMOs, random mutations are induced in crops, which then undergo a process of selection; whatever side effects of the induced mutation must be accepted in GMO crops. In CRISPR, precise and deliberate alterations are made, which should have fewer side effects.
The prospect of creating enhanced humans is not a new idea in our society. Many movies, like “Captain America” or “The Hulk”, showcase fictional characters that have extraordinary abilities.
But with CRISPR, many of these embellished qualities become more of a possibility. CRISPR has the potential to create humans with stronger bones, higher immunity and more strength. Just like simulation video games like Sims 4 and GTA, where you design your avatar, we can now architect human beings.
With it, we could get rid of hereditary disorders from within the womb, which puts a whole new spin on what we deem ethical and what we don’t.
What traits do we deem fit for alteration, and what do we deem unfit? Some think it is ethical to rid a child of Cystic fibrosis or HIV. Why shouldn’t we provide children with a better chance at life? One might question whether it is ethical to withhold technology that could save someone from a life of pain and discomfort.
But then there are those who want to “design” their children. We live in a world where stereotypes around beauty and status flourish. We might have sections of society that wish to have children with fair skin, blue eyes, tall, muscular builds and so on. Would it be ethical to use CRISPR for such purposes when it can peddle racial and prejudiced views in society?
Many consider CRISPR technology to be the next step in advancing the human species. The day has come that we have seized control of evolution, where we, as a species, expand our biological capabilities. Whether this is good or bad is anyone’s guess.
There are other questions when it comes to CRISPR. Who will have access to it? How will it be regulated? Who will do it?
This is a challenging question to ponder. How can one allow parents to deliberately manufacture a child with white skin and tall height? How can one deny parents the ability to give their child a fair start in life by ridding them of the gene for sickle cell anaemia (a blood disorder)?
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How do we distribute it? Where do we price it? What qualifications must you have to purchase and use it?
When studying the debate around CRISPR, look carefully at what words are being used. Some use words like improve, and enhance, while others prefer terms like manipulate or impair. Design, revamp, modify, reconstruct, amend, develop, reshape, adjust, sabotage, destroy, eradicate, reconfigure—the list is endless. It’s fascinating how someone’s vernacular during these conversations gives a unique insight into their stance.
I cannot stress enough how CRISPR isn’t just another scientific discovery. It is a tool which can alter the very fabric of life. It upends everything from evolution to racism to ethicism.
Tools can be funny things. They can empower people to do good and disillusion people to do bad. A well-meaning doctor can aid countless lives by removing genes that cause certain cancers, HIV and so on. A crazy genocidal maniac could engineer a virus that could wipe out entire communities within a few days (from the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen what havoc a virus can do to our current world order).
So clearly, CRISPR is an exciting and powerful breakthrough in science, one that we must approach with caution. We need to have more conversations about the technology’s potential. Through intense discussion, we can hopefully find a way to use it in an equitable, progressive and just manner.
Some resources on CRISPR. These are just a few links; there is a host of material on CRISPR on the internet. I strongly recommend you read as much about this phenomenon. It will be an enormous part of our future.
Watch Jennifer Doudna’s TED Talk
Watch Ellen Jorgensen’s TED Talk on CRISPR
How CRISPR is more than Gene editing
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