January 20, 2019

Do You Understand How CRISPR Works?

“One of the biggest and most important science stories of the past few years will probably also be one of the biggest science stories of the next few years. So this is as good a time as any to get acquainted with the powerful new gene editing technology known as CRISPR.

If you haven’t heard of CRISPR yet, the short explanation goes like this: In the past nine years, scientists have figured out how to exploit a quirk in the immune systems of bacteria to edit genes in other organisms — plants, mice, even humans. With CRISPR, they can now make these edits quickly and cheaply, in days rather than weeks or months. (The technology is often known as CRISPR/Cas9, but we’ll stick with CRISPR, pronounced “crisper.”)

We’re talking about a powerful new tool to control which genes get expressed in plants, animals, and even humans; the ability to delete undesirable traits and, potentially, add desirable traits with more precision than ever before.

So far scientists have used it to reduce the severity of genetic deafness in mice, suggesting it could one day be used to treat the same type of hearing loss in people. They’ve created mushrooms that don’t brown easily and edited bone marrow cells in mice to treat sickle-cell anemia. Down the road, CRISPR might help us develop drought-tolerant crops and create powerful new antibiotics. CRISPR could one day even allow us to wipe out entire populations of malaria-spreading mosquitoes or resurrect once-extinct species like the passenger pigeon.

A big concern is that while CRISPR is relatively simple and powerful, it isn’t perfect. Scientists have recently learned that the approach to gene editing can inadvertently wipe out and rearrange large swaths of DNA in ways that may imperil human health. That follows recent studies showing that CRISPR-edited cells can inadvertently trigger cancer. That’s why many scientists argue that experiments in humans are premature: The risks and uncertainties around CRISPR modification are extremely high.”

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