THE GENE HACKERS
A powerful new technology enables us to manipulate our DNA more easily than ever before.
By Michael Specter
November 16, 2015
Did you ever imagine that one day people could alter human genes or bring Woolly Mammoths back to life? Now scientists believe that this may be possible. Scientists have discovered a gene editing tool called CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. Scientists have been researching CRISPR in bacteria since the 1980s. Scientists believed that bacteria kept records of past diseases in order to repel the disease when it was next exposed to the virus. This is a lot like the human immune system. Specifically, scientists discovered that bacteria use a combination of guide RNA and a protein that acts like scissors to cut up DNA of the virus. The resulting DNA sequences are called CRISPR. The protein that breaks the DNA strands at a specific spot is called Cas9. It wasn't until 2012, that Jennifer Doudna and her lab team demonstrated that CRISPR could edit “purified” DNA. Soon after, Feng Zhang and George Church demonstrated that CRISPR could be used to edit human cells. After these discoveries, scientists around the country began to use CRISPR/Cas9 in laboratories on different organisms. Using CRISPR/Cas9, scientists can edit and remove genes in any animal, including humans! The use of CRISPR/Cas9 is better than the old methods of gene editing because it is simple, cheap, and easy to use. Over the past few years, scientists have been testing CRISPR/Cas9 on mice and other animals similar to humans. In addition, Chinese researchers attempted to repair the gene responsible for a rare, fatal blood disorder in 86 human embryos using CRISPR. This research was very controversial because some scientists thought that this was unethical. However, others believed that the experiment was important and conducted well. The discovery of using CRISPR/Cas9 to edit genes is truly amazing, but there are also many ethical questions. Many scientists are worried about CRISPR/Cas9, because it is so cheap and easy to use, and that it may be used in unethical ways.
I chose this article about CRISPR because this subject sounded very interesting and it was chosen as the “Breakthrough of the Year” by the editors of The Journal of Science. I first watched a video about CRISPR on Science Daily and this sparked my interest in this subject. I then searched for a reliable source about the CRISPR technology. I found a detailed article from The New Yorker. This subject grabbed my attention because I didn’t know much about the ability to edit genes. My Grandfather passed away of Parkinson's at only 63 and the fact that we will soon have the ability to hopefully cure diseases through the use of CRISPR/Cas9 is amazing. I learned about the complex history of gene editing, the science behind CRISPR, and the financial importance of the discovery of CRISPR. I also learned to better understand the ethical problems of many great scientific discoveries such as DNA manipulation and the atomic bomb. This article connects to our study of cells at school. Learning about CRISPR involves understanding the structure of cells and the DNA inside them. CRISPR gene editing has already been affecting many aspects of our society and scientific knowledge. CRISPR was used to alter 62 genes in pig embryos, creating animals that could hopefully carry human organs for transplant. Researchers have also used CRISPR to develop better biofuels, and make crops more pest and drought resistant. Researchers are also contemplating how to use CRISPR to eliminate mosquitoes carrying malaria and target invasive species like the Asian Carp. I knew that The New Yorker was a well known magazine. After I read the article, I listened to a TED Talks given by the Co-Inventor of the CRISPR titled, “We can now edit our DNA. But let's do it wisely.” This helped me make sure that the information from The New Yorker article was reliable and also to better understand the complicated scientific subject. I agree with the author of this article that if CRISPR can help find a cure for cancer or other diseases, that the fear about this discovery will most likely be gone. Learning about this CRISPR technology makes me feel hopeful for what the future has to bring using this discovery.