If you haven’t heard of CRISPR, the short explanation goes like this: scientists have figured out how to exploit a quirk in the immune systems of bacteria to edit genes in other organisms including humans. It’s a powerful new tool with the ability to delete undesirable traits and add desirable traits in the target organism. For example, scientists have used it to treat deafness in mice, suggesting it could one day be used to treat hearing loss in people.
More shocking: in 2018, a scientist in China reported that he had created the twin girls resistant to HIV with CRISPR-edited genes. The announcement stunned scientists around the world. It also created more questions than it answered: Did Jiankui actually pull it off? Does he deserve praise or condemnation?
A panel of experts at MIT cast doubt on the veracity of the claim. Nevertheless, the prospect of such a creation seems more real now that we have this new technology. While the controversy brews, there are other CRISPR applications that are close to fruition, such as new disease therapies.
The function of CRISPR sequences was a mystery until 2007, when food scientists studying bacteria discovered that it’s part of the bacteria’s immune system. Bacteria are under constant assault from viruses. So, they must find ways to fight them off. Before the pandemic, scientists at MIT and Harvard were able to program CRISPR enzymes to target specific viruses such as those related to lung cancer, chopping them up to render them unable to affect other cells.
The real opportunities and risks come from the potential of using CRISPRs to edit various plants and animals. For example:
1) Edit crops to be more nutritious: CRISPR could be used to edit genes of crops to make them tastier or healthier or both. It could also be used, for example, to eliminate the allergens in peanuts.
2) New tools to stop genetic diseases: Scientists are using CRISPR to edit the human genome to eliminate genetic diseases.
3) New antibiotics and antivirals: We are running low on effective antibiotics as infections mutate to become more resistant. CRISPR could be used to make them more effective. As it develops it might also be used against rogue viruses like COVID-19 or Ebola.
4) Creating “designer babies”: This is the one that gets the most attention, and for good reason. There’s little reason to believe global governments could agree on what’s ethical in the use of CRISPR much less prevent unethical human experiments.
At a very basic level, we must answer the question: should we work to edit out genetic diseases and disability OR should we edit out traits that we deem undesirable?
So, naturally, I’ve decided to include an outcome of this potential development in my next book. Much like we create Labradoodles today, I imagine we can create hybrid humans with exaggerated traits like superhuman strength and fighting skills.
Watch for it – the sequel to The Awakening of Artemis is coming in 2022.