For folks who have read my books, you’ll remember that the gene-editing technology called CRISPR is mentioned. I’ve heard CRISPR referred to in various settings a few times over the last couple of days, so I thought it was time to do a bit of reading and find out the latest news.
We know that gene-editing human embryos is a thing. In 2018, Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui used CRISPR technology to edit human embryos to make the resulting children resistant to HIV infection. He Jiankui and two of his colleagues were jailed for this research. In addition to the obvious, there’s also the problem of unintended consequences. It’s been shown that the twin girls carrying the edited genes face a higher risk of premature death.
Because of this research and outcome, an international commission from ten countries was convened by the US National Academy of Medicine, the US National Academy of Sciences, and the UK Royal Society to discuss human genome editing. The commission focused on the scientific and technical aspects of CRISPR, not on ethical considerations. Based solely on technology, the commission concluded that “…the technique is too risky to be used in embryos destined for implantation.” (1) Furthermore, the commission stressed that “…even when the technology is mature, its use should initially be permitted in only a narrow set of circumstances.” (1)
CRISPR has plenty of additional applications. I found a recent article calling CRISPR a runaway technology. Before the twin girls in China were born, “…one [US-based] biotech company used spurious public health claims to get CRISPR-modified foods onto people’s dinner plates.” (2) Googling “crispr and food” yielded a whole raft of articles on CRISPR created food in supermarkets. A Guardian article warned of what’s coming: hardier strawberries that can be picked by machine instead of by hand. Lettuce that can grow in drier climates. Wheat with less gluten. Another article calls CRISPR “The latest adventure in food enhancement…” (3), then goes on to discuss how to create a regulatory environment that supports CRISPR use in food technology.
Another group of scientists is investigating using CRISPR to eradicate pests, like mosquitoes or mice. An article a couple of years ago in Nature talks about using CRISPR to engineer “gene drives,” where a mutation spreads through a population faster than it would by natural selection. (4) The author, Megan Scudellari, talks about whether this would even work; how a trial could be set up (because once it’s released, there’s no going back); how could it be controlled; and ultimately, who gets to decide.
It’s a lot to think about.
That’s it for today. Until next time,
(1) “‘CRISPR babies’ are still too risky, says influential panel” by Heidi Leford, Nature, September 03, 2020 (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02538-4)
(2) “Runaway Biology: A Call for Conscientious Genome Editing with CRISPR” by Søren Hough, Science for the People, Volume 23, number 3, Bio-Politics, Winter 2020 (https://magazine.scienceforthepeople.org/vol23-3-bio-politics/crispr-runaway-biology-conscientious-genome-editing/)
(3) “CRISPR and Our Food Supply: What’s Next in Feeding the World?” by Scott Haskell, Michigan State University (https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/crispr-and-our-food-supply-what-s-next-in-feeding-the-world)
(4) “Self-destructing mosquitoes and sterilized rodents: the promise of gene drives” by Megan Scudellari, Nature, July 9, 2019 (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02087-5)