It is a bit of an understatement to say that innovation in science and medicine over the past century has forever changed the way the world looks. Countless inventions and discoveries have revolutionized civilization, ensuring that people live healthier, safer, more productive and much happier lives. Yet, some more recent innovations which have promised to be even more revolutionary and bring about a sci-fi future have had less than amazing effects.
So it seems to be with CRISPR, the gene editing tool that took the world by storm a few years ago. When CRISPR made its debut, almost everyone predicted it to change science and medicine forever, giving scientists and doctors the incredible power to change the DNA of anyone or anything. Since then, it is unclear what, if anything CRISPR has done, let alone whether it has had a positive effect on the world.
What Is CRISPR?
CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” and it is a type of DNA sequence found in some bacteria and other microscopic organisms. Scientists have found a way to use these gene sequences to detect and destroy segments of DNA in other organisms, which is technically called CRISPR-Cas9 after an enzyme used to alter DNA in those bacteria. Some scientists call the Cas9 protein “gene scissors,” as it provides a way to cut open strands of DNA to make edits to the genome.
What Could CRISPR Do?
The science of gene editing is relatively new, and CRISPR is a powerful tool for helping scientists better understand the effects and limitations of interfering with the genomes of different living things. This online CRISPR course provides more detailed insight into the advantages of the tool and how it is being implemented across industries to the benefit of people everywhere.
Already, there have been hundreds of proposed applications for CRISPR, some more interesting and others more problematic. A few examples include:
Eliminating Dangerous Pest Populations
Mosquitoes, ticks, fleas and flies account for billions of cases of deadly diseases every year and many millions of deaths. Other pests do damage to agricultural systems by spreading disease amongst crops or livestock. Some scientists have advocated for using CRISPR to eliminate these pest populations to eradicate these threats.
There are a few different ways CRISPR might be deployed to cure cancer. First, CRISPR might help eliminate cancerous cells when used to modify a patient’s immune system to locate and kill cancers without harming other, healthy cells. Secondly, some types of cancer are actually encoded into patients’ DNA; if doctors can identify these sequences and modify patients’ genes before the cancer develops, it can prevent cancer’s growth entirely.
Modifying Animal Organs for Human Transplantation
Notoriously, there aren’t as many organ donors as patients who require organ transplants. Thus, doctors have long looked for a way to grow bespoke organs for patients or else utilize animal organs — and CRISPR allows for both. By modifying genes in animals with organs similar to humans’, like pigs, scientists might be able to produce all sorts of valuable organs suitable for transplantation as patients develop need for them.
Bulking up Livestock
Feeding livestock is expensive and time-consuming, which increases the costs of meat worldwide. CRISPR could be implemented in creating cows, pigs and other livestock that put on excess muscle quickly, which reduces the resource investment of raising meat and allows for more access to healthy meat around the world, potentially ending food shortages and famines.
Developing a New Type of Pharmaceutical
Pharmaceutical companies are eager to get their hands on CRISPR to develop a new type of drug using the tech. They believe that CRISPR could be applied in drug form to treat a variety of diseases and illnesses, like heart disease, blindness and various blood disorders. CRISPR could effectively change the pharmaceutical landscape, especially if it becomes available in a convenient form like a pill or injection.
Creating Human Life
Potentially the most controversial use of CRISPR is in editing human genes, especially before birth. Some scientists have suggested that CRISPR could be used to alter genes in growing embryos to prevent miscarriage, birth defects and other natal concerns. Less scrupulous scientists have also suggested using CRISPR tools to “improve” human DNA, by changing certain features like hair color, fat distribution, intelligence and more.
Perhaps surprisingly, each one of the above applications for CRISPR already has at least one related research project in the works. Some, like curing cancer, have actually been deployed in the patient population to positive effect. The answer to the question “What are we doing with CRISPR?” is essentially “Anything and everything we can.”