Science has evolved faster in the past century than the rest of human history combined. We’re increasing our capacity for improvement at an exponential rate, making the future look incredibly bright while also being mysterious. We’re not sure where science will be in 20 years, but we do have some seeds planted in our brains of what the next big innovation might be. One that has been getting a lot of attention recently is CRISPR, a way of editing human genes.
CRISPR, of course, is an acronym and it stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. Those words alone probably have you feeling ready to tap out because it seems extremely complicated, but it might be more simple than you realize. We’ll let the development of the CRISPR genome, Jennifer Doudna (who by the way won a 2020 Nobel Prize for her work) explain it a little better.
“CRISPR is, in fact, a bacterial immune system,” she said. “It’s an ancient system that evolved in microbes to allow prevention of viral infection…our work with the laboratory revealed that one of the components of this CRISPR immune system is, in fact, a protein that’s called Cas9, that can be programmed to find and cut virus DNA.”
With that said, CRISPR has been used as a diagnostic tool, especially with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. About a decade prior, though, CRISPR started to become more common in another field, and that’s gene editing. At first, CRISPR was used to edit foods before it was introduced to other fields and eventually human use. This includes the treatment of diseases, and gene editing via CRISPR is becoming more common and accessible by the day.
There are very few limitations for what CRISPR can do to the human body, and it’s something that you’ll be hearing your doctor talk about when deciding treatments in years to come. “You can just point it at a place in the genome and you can do anything you want at that spot,” said Robert Reed, a professor of biology at Cornell University. Technically, CRISPR causes a gene mutation by cutting like a knife or a pair of scissors, and the precision that’s been achieved has opened up a lot of new doors for advancement.
This raises another question, though, and it has to do with the ethics of mutating genes. While many see it as a way to prevent and treat serious illnesses, there are some that see it from the other side where it’s a way of weeding out certain people socioeconomically. “The concern is that with technologies that are relatively easy to use, like CRISPR, how does the scientific community regulate itself?” Robert Truog of Harvard Medical School said. “If there’s a silver lining to this cloud, I think it is that the scientific community did pull together to be critical of this work, and took the responsibility to seriously use the tools available to them to regulate themselves.”
You’ll be hearing a lot about CRISPR in the coming years between debates, treatments and much more. For now, it’s early, but we’ve seen its uses in fighting diseases such as blindness, diabetes and even cancer and HIV. The future is closer than you think and CRISPR is something that might end up saving your life or a loved one’s very soon.