“Technology has been a double-edged sword since fire, which has kept us warm and cooked our food but also burned down our villages.”
But, technology has also afforded us the ability to play God, and we have selectively engineered attributes of plants and animals that we so desire, while breeding out the less useful characteristics.
Seldom does a new technology arise that truly merits the epithet ‘game changer’. Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats or CRISPR is a radical genome editing technology that allows scientists to edit genes with unparalleled precision, efficiency, and flexibility. Occurring naturally in living organisms when under attack, CRISPR replicates the genetic sequence of an invading virus, and disables it. In the last decade, scientists recognised that CRISPR could be repurposed into a simple and reliable method to edit, delete or repair the cells of almost any living organism. It is so precise that it can be used to change a single letter amongst the billions of DNA combinations that make up code of life. But most crucially, it is fast, inexpensive, precise and easily programmable. And we are only just getting started…
Until the end of time
Until now, we have stood united and valiantly fought a losing battle against our common enemy, Cancer. Responsible for more than 8 million deaths each year, the molecular cut-and-replace scissors that is CRISPR represents an opportunity to deal a fatal blow and end this war. In China, clinical trials are already underway in humans using CRISPR to treat Lung Cancer, while the first clinical trial was recently approved in the US. But cancer is just the beginning. Discovery-phase pharmaceutical company, Editas Medicine intends to use CRISPR to treat a rare hereditary eye disease as early as next year, while pharmaceutical giant Novartis is working to introduce off-the-shelf T cell editing treatments for leukemia in the next few years.
But, are we opening Pandora’s Box? This pioneering scientific innovation begs the moral question that if CRISPR has no limits, then what are humanity’s? Curing disease and ending suffering is a logical first step, but soon the eradication of cancer will be a distant afterthought, as we are confronted by our own vanity in the race to bestow upon ourselves super-strength, hyper-intelligence, and of course, baby blue eyes. The new status-quo could represent a novel epoch where super-humans could effectively bypass evolution and endow themselves with the finest traits taken from other animals. Taking a biological page from the genetic book of a lobster could reward us with the eternal Elixir of Life. While previous CRISPR experiments had only involved the modification of a single gene in a cell, Scientists at the Harvard Medical School recently used CRISPR to edit 62 genes in pig cells at once. The ability to simultaneously alter multiple genes at once would pave the way for more complicated and rapid changes to DNA, the culmination of which would result in animal organs transplanted into humans.
The Sims, IRL
Of the 3,500 different species of mosquitoes on earth, just 30 spread malaria. These silent killers are the cause of half a million deaths each year, making them the most prolific and efficient predator on earth. Already in existence are CRISPR modified self-annihilating mosquitoes, designed to sterilise their entire species in just one year. Typically, any genetic modifications made to a species will have a 50% chance of being passed to the offspring, but CRISPR forges a new path by permitting the creation of an artificially selfish gene drive which is capable of passing on any genetic modifications to 99% of subsequent offspring. Our war on malaria is fought by purchasing thousands of bed nets, tens of thousands of doses of antimalarial drugs, and millions of gallons of insecticides. Addressing the inherent cause itself by releasing a few dozen purposely designed and engineered mosquitos, we could bring about the extinction of malaria by the end of this decade. But we need to tread carefully, or suffer the unintended consequences of instigating a catastrophic butterfly effect of our own making.
With the global population expected to exceed 9.5 billion in the next 35 years on an ever-warmer planet, CRISPR opens the symbolic door to an array of agriculture production improvements. Not just limited to creatures and beasts, CRISPR has already been used to modify the DNA of yeast so that it consumes plant matter and produces useful lipids and polymers, the precursor for biofuel – promising the finale to our centuries old dependence on oil. We have selectively bred and cultivated attributes of plants and animals to improve their yield and disease resistance since the emergence of modern agriculture, but that is a bygone era as researchers can now use CRISPR to reduce ecological stress on our environment while increasing yield. A CRISPR modified farm will pave the way towards sustainable agriculture by reversing pesticide resistance in insects and herbicide resistance in weeds, resulting in a smaller environmental footprint.
So powerful and accessible is CRISPR, definitive limits need to be placed on its application. When the source code of life lies in the hands of so few, so perilous is the risk of misuse. CRISPR crowns researchers and scientists with an omniscient God-like supremacy to eradicate disease and suffering, but can also be used to purge the distinct racial, intellectual, and aesthetic curiosities that make the human species so diverse. Like the lowly mosquito, CRISPR will bestow on us irreversible modified traits which will then be passed to subsequent generations. But most importantly, we should question whether we will lose the ability to appreciate the significance of our own fragile existence when we can alter, repair, and change ourselves?