CRISPR at a crossroads

Today some very smart people are having some very deep discussions about a very important technology.

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Why wasn’t I invited?

The world’s finest scientific minds, along with a squadron of bioethicists, philosophers, and concerned citizens have convened in our nation’s capital to debate one overarching question: What should the world DO with CRISPR?

crispr schematic
So much strum und drang for a simple stretch of DNA

For the uninitiated, CRISPR stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeats.” However, this strange little DNA sequence and associated genes, found in almost 40% of bacterial genomes, is much more than simply a microbial quirk of nature. As I’ve discussed previously, CRISPR functions as a bacterial adaptive immune system: a mechanism by which single-celled organisms do battle with the hundreds of thousands of viruses that prey upon them.

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Life is HARD for a bacteria

CRISPR lets bacteria chop virus genomes into pieces rather than being taken over by invading DNA. The reason the scientific community has lost its collective shit over CRISPR is that with a little simple tweaking, the molecular machine will cut any piece of DNA in any precise location.

This is powerful because once you CUT DNA…you can change DNA.

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C’mere…I’ll edit your genome

Ever since some very clever bunnies named Jennifer Doudna and Feng Zhang figured out how to harness CRISPR to do genomic arts and crafts, genome editing research has EXPLODED.  Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 3.52.06 PM

CRISPR works in every single cell-type that scientists have stuck it in, which is totally crazy, given that the thing spent billions of years evolving inside bacteria.

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These cells…
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are different than THESE cells

CRISPRs are cheap and easy to use. A clever researcher with five hundred bucks and a reasonably meeting-free Tuesday could have a mutant worm by the end of the week if they so desired.

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The only unrealistic part of the prediction is that a scientist would have a meeting-free Tuesday…

Earlier this year, the scientific community realized that gene-edited designer babies, once dismissed as the stuff of dystopian science fiction fantasy, suddenly seemed more plausible than Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

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Plausible, innately unnatural, and DEEPLY disturbing

Worried at the potential implications of creating heritable changes in the human race, Jennifer Doudna and several leading scientists issued a worldwide call for a moratorium on CRISPR research in human gremlin tissue. Within a month of the call for restraint a chinese group announced that they had gone ahead and given it a shot–using CRISPR to edit the beta globin gene in non-viable human embryos. The_Scream

Luckily…nothing too alarming has happened since. Unless, of course, you consider Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Now, the National Academies and Royal Societies of Science from Europe, China, and the good old U.S. of A. are convening in Washington D.C. to hash out the future of CRISPR research at a three-day summit.

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We have an opportunity to lead the scientific community.

While the world has its #eyesonparis for the ongoing climate talks, we should also keep our ears open for the news coming out of Washington D.C. Both meetings are momentous and will have long-reaching implications for human health. Genome editing might hold the key to  curing cancer, sickle cell anemia, or cystic fibrosis. Some (clearly insane) people have even proposed that human genetic engineering could present a viable solution for climate change–save the environment by making BETTER, more efficient humans.

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Rockstar dinosaurs are the next stage in human evolution

Designer babies notwithstanding, I look forward to hearing the discussion of this important, rapidly advancing technology. CRISPR is post-normal science: it’s so novel, and the field is moving so fast we cannot possibly predict what the future holds until we actually try it out. Finer minds than mine have staked out positions on both sides of the issue.

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That’s a fine mind you got there

I particularly enjoyed a debate between Francis Collins, director of the NIH and George Church, the synthetic biology wunderkind. I thought that both deliberately adopted somewhat extreme viewpoints…presumably in order address the topic in broad strokes for a general audience rather than dive deep into the nuanced discussion that CRISPR deserves. Fortunately, during the next few days some of the smartest people in the entire world will wrestle with the difficult ethical, legal, social, and scientific issues that arise with humanity’s newfound ability to change any gene we want at any time we want. UW-Madison, in particular, is well represented at the summit. Faculty from across campus, including Dietram Scheufele from the Life Sciences Communication department will participate in panels. I don’t know WHAT the future holds for humanity, but I’m glad that scholars are having an open, honest discussion about the difficult questions.

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Go badgers.

Genome editing: Panacea or Pandora’s box? Should we fix cystic fibrosis? Where do you draw the line between treatment and enhancement? Is Donald Trump SERIOUSLY still a viable presidential candidate? Can we CRISPR some common sense into that guy?

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