Gene eggs and ham

A possible breakthrough in genetic modification technology may simplify alterations


Graphic by Victoria Van

Story by Charli Hueter, staff writer

Clustered regularly interspersed palindromic repeats, or CRISPR, is a recent scientific breakthrough in gene editing technology. Think of it like the Microsoft Word of human genomes, where formerly difficult maneuvers met a much more user-friendly interface. Just as codes must be altered within computers, so our genetic sequences can now be manipulated to produce entirely new, more desirable outcomes. Someday in the near future, people may not be completely subject to their biological composition. Altering genes such as the blue eye color of a baby, or innate diseases like cancer, could become as simple as the click of a button.

“CRISPR could potentially be used to replace genes. There is a treatment for genetic diseases that already exists, but it has only been used to treat disorders that are highly likely to cause death, if I understand correctly,” biology teacher Amy Baker said. “That is because these techniques can cause frameshift mutations and, potentially, cancer. If CRISPR is everything its fans claim, it could be revolutionary if it becomes legal to edit human genes for non-medical purposes, like ‘designer babies.’ The movie Gattaca might provide some insight if you haven’t seen it.”

CRISPR, pronounced “crisper,” is the acronym coined by Francisco Mojica, one of the earliest researchers to encounter the Cas9 protein associated with it. The name highlights its ability to repeat base DNA sequences. CRISPR is the name of the DNA strand being inserted, whereas Cas9 is the enzyme performing the ‘incision’ within the original strand.

CRISPR is not the first of its kind, but it garners popularity in its efficiency, affordability, and precision. Engineering ventures alongside CRISPR in the “molecular scissor” category include Zinc finger nuclease (ZFN) and Transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs). However, CRISPR is the only gene editor with potential for incorporation within other laboratories, as its services are much less complex to introduce.  

“CRISPR is a relatively new gene editing technology. It uses part of the bacterial immune system to edit DNA,” Baker said. “I think these techniques are likely to be described somewhat in [future] science curricula. I can’t really agree or disagree with CRISPR at this point because I haven’t been able to learn enough about it; I learned about the current gene therapy in college. What I’ve found has been a bunch of vague advertisement rather than critical analysis of advantages and disadvantages, along with specifics of how it works.”

CRISPR might be revolutionary, but again, we don’t really know.”

— Amy Baker

Aside from its mounting hype within the scientific community, CRISPR is growing exponentially as a hot topic for various news media, since what has been unearthed is similar to that of a superpower for the human race. CRISPR has the potential for scientists to select traits for the following generation whether the genes be height, intelligence, or the muscles of a fine sprinter. An entirely new race could be generated, diseases could be easily prevented, even certain animal species could benefit. But, if one were to take into account what would happen if this power got into the wrong hands, it would become a matter of chess. What moves scientists choose to make now will alter the entire course of the game to come.

“CRISPR might be revolutionary, but again, we don’t really know,” Baker said. “No one really knows what CRISPR is capable of because it is a patented technology.  We know what its proponents claim it can do, but we know very little about the specifics.”