Thursday, August 11, 2016

Cas9 - CRISPR than Toast

CRISPR-Cas9 just opened up a whole new can of tricks for the biological scientists of the world. Now we may very well possess the cure for cancer, and our own little pair of molecular scissors. I'm transported back to Bio and the NOVA documentary on the rascaleous scientists Watson and Crick and their discovery of the double helix, only so recently revealing the shape of our own DNA. That unit gave me, for the first time, an understanding of what DNA really was, what it was comprised of, and how all of its tiny components functioned as a molecular assembly line.

Now only 60 years later we have taken to reshaping that DNA. This article addresses probably the most noble cause we could think to put this science to use for, the crusade against cancer. But what interests me is all the myriad of uses our society will inevitably hunger for besides the noble medicinal cures. For this science is a game changer, a gene changer. Fundamentally DNA is the code of life, and at its core CRISPR is designed to change that code. CRISPR-Cas9 is at its most basic, a molecular scalpel (the enzyme Cas-9) armed with a targeting system (the RNA guide). Who decides what inputs are placed into that targeting system? After all, the possibilities expand far beyond cancer treatment. Any gene eligible for alteration is fair game, the gene that gives you those blue eyes the girls fall for, the curly hair that had all the neighborhood boys in a tizzy. Will our doctors and our scientists be left to decide what can and cannot be altered? Will our philosophers and pastors? Maybe even our politicians.

Now we truly can play God. When you go to the hospital to check up on your pregnancy with your spouse there will be a questionnaire with a list of desired traits for your child to have. Combine this with a gene drive and perhaps you could decide the genetic fate of your entire lineage. That is after all, what we do to animals already. See certain genes have higher chances of being inherited, but the gene drive overrides this to our choosing as we decide what gene shall be inherited, telling Lady Luck and Mother Nature to take the back seat. The AquaAdvantage Atlantic Salmon is a perfect example of this that is already in use, a breed of salmon that has been altered with CRISPR and the gene drive to engineer a fish twice the size of its natural counterpart, with less time and feed required. Now CRISPR already has a booth with its name on it in the food, cosmetic, and medical marketplace.

The cooperation of the gene drive even gives the possibility for biological resistances to be past down from generation to generation. If an altered gene granting resistance to certain diseases is placed in a host of mosquitoes the aim is to eventually spread resistance to the entire population, meaning no more Zika or Malaria. But it goes even beyond that because CRISPR has the potential to utterly rearrange the proteins and nucleotides that it encodes. Does this mean it will possess the ability to create entirely new genes?
With this advancement in technology we are faced with an ethical and moral dilemma of biblical proportions.
CRISPR is shaping up to be a tool with unending possibilities, a tool that may reshape the entire human genome.

The question is, how far will we go down the rabbit hole?

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