Genetic Engineering Via CRISPR is The Future of Humanity
As an intelligent society, we tend to pride ourselves into believing that we have total control of our lives. But this couldn’t be further from the truth; in fact, humanity has always been at the mercy of random selection/mutations especially in terms of evolution. However, this could all change thanks to some of the latest breakthroughs in genetic engineering.
What is Genetic Engineering?
Genetic engineering refers to any deliberate modification of an organism’s characteristics by manipulating the genetic material (DNA). This technology has been around for a while; its been responsible for GMO foods, medicine such as insulin, and even some less critical applications such as fluorescent zebrafish. All this seems like the tip of the iceberg compared to the latest advancements in CRISPR.
What is CRISPR
Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat (CRISPR) can be quite a mouthful. Like any other technology, this one too has been copied from nature, bacteria to be exact. CRISPR refers to a unique organization of partially palindromic DNA sequences found in bacteria genomes that allow the microorganisms to fight off viruses.
To do so the bacteria’s immune system usually, save a part of the virus DNA in their own genetic material in the CRISPR archive. When the bacteriophage invades the bacteria again, the bacterium makes RNA copy from the CRISPR archive and arms CAS9 which then scans every bit of DNA floating around against this copy. When it finds a match, it automatically destroys this unwanted invader.
Why is CRISPR the key to the genetic engineering age?
Ability to edit live cells. Because CRISPR is programmable, it can be used to target specific DNA codes. The applications for this are limitless, back in 2017 scientists used CRISPR programmed to target HIV and were able to eradiate at least 50% of all infected cells in lab mice. The technology is still in its early stages, but we will see more developments that will make it possible even to modify live cells.
CRISPR can be used to equip the immune system to better target cancer cells. Instead of relying on chemotherapy and radiotherapy which leave a trail of side effects on cancer patients, labs could just engineer a few of your immune cells using CRISPR to make them target cancer cells.
DNA editing to fix disease-causing mutations
There are over 4000 genetic diseases which are caused by a few wrongly placed letters within the chain. With CRISPR such mutations can be easily fixed solving color blindness, hemophilia, Huntington’s disease among others. Currently, scientists are working on a modified version of CAS9 that will make it possible to edit out just a single letter in the DNA string.
Fixing the aging problem
Aging leads to a host of debilitating conditions such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer among others. It’s estimated that two-thirds of all deaths that occur every day are age-related. Aging is as a result of the accumulation of damaged cells and breakdown of systems that are responsible for replacing such cells as well as DNA breaks. CRISPR can be used to borrow a few genes from the nature that are responsible for slowing down aging and further prolong our lives here on earth.
He Jiankui a genetics scientist put the science community and the world in a conundrum in 2018 when he announced that he had secretly engineered the first genetically modified human embryos and brought them to term. The pregnancy went well and the twins Lulu and Nana were born with DNA enhancement giving them HIV resistance.
What surprises most of us is not that he failed to follow any existing ethical and moral codes of conducts but the fact that this is actually possible, how many other similar private experiments could be going on? At this point its no longer a secret the pandora’s box is already open designer babies are coming, who decides just how far the human genome can be edited remains to be seen; there are no clear guidelines just yet.
Saving endangered species
Without cacao plants, we wouldn’t have our favorite chocolates and sadly this plant is facing some serious threats from fungal and viral infections. However, with CRISPR scientists can isolate the DNA responsible for such susceptibility and even equip cacao trees with fungal immunity. Of course, such works are still in the development phase, and actual results remain to be seen. CRISPR can also be used to repopulate endangered species by imbuing them with superior traits thus averting the current string of extinctions that the planet has been witnessing most of which are directly related to human activities.
What the future holds for genetic engineering
This title should actually read what genetic engineering holds for the future as there is still much we don’t know about this technology making it almost impossible to predict its future. However, if history is anything to go by, we are at the tipping point of probably the most diverse technological change that humanity has ever seen. Why? Genetic engineering could very well redefine what we as humans are, the human genome could be entirely re-written with changes becoming permanent over each generation.
To get a better scale of just how wide-reaching the implications of CRISPR are, we must look at the implications from both a scientific standpoint as well as an ethical perspective. It’s no secret that genetic engineering will help in preventing diseases and improving human health. However, are such improvements worth the risk of the unknown? Gene editing can lead to wrong edits as well as other unknown errors which could occur in the DNA and go unnoticed only to trigger unknown changes along the line.
There’s also the question of the ethics in deciding which human traits are considered wanted and which are not. What’s to stop police states from producing super soldiers via genetic engineering? Well, we don’t have the answers to these sensitive questions.
However, this science fiction’ is only research (or a couple) away, the best we can do is adopt more comprehensive scientific research on this technology. Truth is there’s no stopping genetic engineering; instead, we should encourage detailed research on CRISPR and other genome-editing techniques for the betterment of humanity