I’ll begin with the name of a person. Matt Damon.
He’s 45, a well respected actor, and you probably know him from movies such as Team America, his voice actor cameo in Team America, and as a puppet in the summer blockbuster, Team America.
So, if you scroll through his filmography you’ll notice a little movie called Elysium (its the one after Team America). Now the film itself has a generic plot and such little character development that even Pokemon fleshed out Pikachu better in 3 episodes than this movie did in its 2 hour run time.
But that’s beside the point here. I want to direct your attention to this:
This is a medical pod used in the movie, and its purpose was to give its user medical regeneration of almost any kind. Age, cancer, inane urges to become a rapper; if you can name it, this thing had a cure via a mystical white light.
But, what if I told you that we have the closest thing to this possible, available right here, right now.
What if I told you it’s been around since 2011?
Before I launch into this there are two things I want to clear up. One, Gattaca is probably a much better movie to compare this technology to, and its also just a much better movie.
But I really wanted an excuse to bring up Matt Damon.
Two, we’re going to have to start this story with something a little more recent. Like the FDA’s November 19, 2015 approval of genetically modified salmon in the US markets.
So a while back we saw the legitimization of GM salmon and it generated a massive response from news outlets, to food distributors, and of course our very own citizens. And it’s completely understandable.
After all, we’re talking about venturing into territory that’s unknown and setting a precedence that tampering with animals reared for human consumption is acceptable.
There is good intent though, that is to say, the manufacturers behind AquAdvantage salmon have made strides to address a lot of health and environmental concerns.
First off, the modification they made are the introduction of two elements.
Firstly, taking the Chinook salmon’s incredible growth genes and applying it to the Atlantic salmon.
Secondly, this newtype salmon has a triploid (3 sets of chromosomes) which according to the FDA’s findings, renders 99% of the population infertile.
Naturally, this isn’t an airtight defense. The risk of ecological impact is still present along with potential health concerns. But to many people, having a bunch of new salmon isn’t really that pressing of an issue considering those offended by this news are typically eating Whole Foods kale salads anyway. (Disclosure: I’ve tried the salad, it’s actually quite tasty.)
Ultimately, like many novelties, we will not know the full implications of this landmark decision until the dust settles. Many will take comfort in knowing that one of the larger retailers, Costco, has banned this salmon from its inventory. However, the fact that meat can now be a GMO gives the coveted GMO labeling debate a new set of parameters to consider.
I’m here to tell you, that salmon is just the beginning of it. The very point of the entire needle.
Because we can now alter genomes faster, cheaper, and more accurately than before.
Because we have the power to transcend the transgenerational epigenetic drawbacks of the genetic modifications of animals.
Because of CRISPR.
This is Dr. Jennifer Doudna.
She could’ve easily added another pretty face to the modeling world, but instead opted to be a total badass and completely change the world. (Disclosure: the author may or may not have a crush on this researcher.)
Oh and her nickname is “The Dude”. Yes it’s a pun off of Doudna.
She heads the aptly named Doudna Lab at UC Berkeley, and in 2011 she noticed something very interesting about plain old E.coli bacteria.
In a bacterial genome, there is this really odd section with lot of repeats and in between them, completely nonsensical sequences of RNA. To give you an idea of what it’d look like, here’s a very loosely translated depiction:
Normally, this wouldn’t be much of a big deal. There are random repeats hidden all over genomes of multiple organisms. Even ours. But what separates Doudna from other researchers, is that she had a hunch that this random cluster is more than meets the eye.
It was this hunch that would lead to her breakthrough.
As it turns out, these random sequences of RNA are actually mirrors of viral RNA. Much like how our body memorizes the surface proteins of viruses to build antibodies, bacteria rely on these random RNA chunks hidden in their own genome as their own defense mechanism.
What’s even more amazing is how this defense plays out.
You see, when a virus enters a bacterial cell, it spews out its genetic material and lets the bacteria’s own cell machinery manufacture new viruses. However, when this happens, the bacteria recruits an enzyme known as Cas9 and this enzyme grabs these sequences:
It then floats over to any viral RNA, and uses the “grabbed” sequence to target a part of the virus, thereby binding with it and neutralizing it.
To summarize: Virus enters -> Cas9 complex grabs RNA -> Binds with Virus -> Viral RNA neutralized.
So how does this translate into our human race being able to play God? It’s the fact that this Cas9 complex can use RNA to target and slice into a genome.
The accuracy is insane, Steph Curry-esque for all you NBA fans. All you have to do is design the RNA of any length and it can hit the same gene multiple times.
Whereas older methods were more roundabout, looking at gene regions next to the gene of interest in order to target a spot or relying on a guiding enzyme, CRISPR uses RNA (one half of a strand of DNA) to guide the snipping enzymes.
An analogy would be having a homing pigeon compete with a human to find some random spot in the wild. The human would be the conventional method, and is typically accurate, but cannot trump the laser guided accuracy and instinct of the homing pigeon. If you have a target RNA that WANTS to be a part of one particular region of DNA, it’ll go to that region almost every time.
Scientists get to cut down on the time used to develop these target proteins and cutting proteins, and just need to worry about raising a bunch of cutting proteins that have space to accommodate any RNA you want.
This also cuts back on time spent on developing lab animals. Animals studies are vital for looking into toxicity and cancer. They (typically mice) are reared with deliberate defects or diseases to tests cures or levels of exposure.
Raising these mice takes a lot of time, and therefore, a lot of funding. You have to create a vector, stick it in a stem cell, hope it infects, screen that stem cell for its ability to induce pregnancy, implant the stem cell in a pseudopregnant female, hope it fertilizes and induces pregnancy, take the babies (chimera’s), make them reproduce together, and THEN maybe, just maybe, you have the mice who display the traits you wanted to see at the beginning of the study.
With CRISPR, you take an already fertilized egg, stick in the Cas-9 protein, then stick that egg in a female rat, and know that the babies that come out for sure display the traits you want. In terms of time, where the conventional method takes 1-2 years, CRISPR takes only 1-2 months. When you’re racing against the clock of a disease, this is a huge accomplishment.
But this also raises a very serious question typically reserved for science fiction nerds or some really desperate movie studio.
What happens when we get to play God?
The God Complex
With CRISPR, and eventually the advances it could make, we have a very real dilemma on our hands.
On one end, scientists have utilized this new technology to completely eliminate a genetic disease by the removal of a gene (in this case, cataracts). More importantly, these mice can reproduce and have offspring that also lack this disease.
We can use this technology to even create insanely accurate animals models of diseases that plague us, and use these model in the development of drugs or cures.
But these only applies to animals right? We don’t have to worry about this huge leap of technology until Kanye becomes president in 2020 .
And you would’ve been right to assume this… until April 2015.
You see, a bunch of Chinese scientists went ahead with one of the most controversial experiments thus far in the 21st century. They successfully spliced out a blood disease gene from human embryo with CRISPR.
Thankfully, just shy of 40% of the surviving embryos (n=71) were met with this success. Meaning that we’re far from reprogramming ourselves.
Remember those salmon though? This technique is cheaper, more accurate, and a lot quicker. What happens if we’re able to produce stable germlines in other plants and animals for food?
Initial studies this year have already shown this is possible.
From tomatoes to rice, when you remove the limits of our previous technology, there is a whole new arena at humanity’s finger tips. We are coming to the realization that we have the power to edit genes as easily as I can edit this article, and it’s awesome, grand, and super scary.
Imagine, once again, the GMO debate. Now, add the fact that plant scientists are almost positive this technology can revolutionize how humanity deliberately changes genetic traits on crops, and the debate gets even more hairy.
Oh let’s not stop there.
Scientists already have had success with pigs and cows. Who knows, one more year and we could edit every imaginable aspect of the meat and vegetables we consume. Fish are just the tip of the Titanic sinking iceberg of ethics we have to deal with.
Some people are cynical, they see that humans cannot stop themselves when big money is on the line. That we are just one step closer from completely eliminating wild type genes (unedited) and tailoring all of Earth’s organisms to our liking.
Adam and Eve were able to name animals in the garden of Eden. We can change the way they look and act in a matter of days or months. Adam looks like a filthy casual compared to the immense technology we now hold.
Yet at the same time, there is room for the most incredible good. For optimism. With the same technique, we could actually reverse whatever damage we’ve done to gene pools. Editing them to look more like their natural form. Re-introducing genes from our seed banks, like an apology to nature.
Aging could be the thing of the past, so could cancer. We could do what the machine in Elysium did, but without the fancy lights and Matt Damon.
It may not look like it, be we are currently facing one of the most important ethical questions of our anthropogenic lifetime. Will we succumb to the temptation of unrestricted potential? Or is our species capable of digging deep, and realizing that this power requires responsibility and regulation.
For me, I’m much more vain. I’m already in the lineup to have my children edited to look like The Rock. Just so I could have little Dwayne Johnsons running around dropping WWE one-liners.
It’s the simple things in life that keep me level headed with the power of CRISPR.
Oh yeah, and if you hadn’t realized this already.
Welcome to the Future.