The power to edit genes is now within our hands. You may have heard of it. It’s a technology called CRISPR-Cas9. It’s taking the science world by storm, due to its ease of deployment and low cost. Now, scientists can edit the genes of plants, animals, and even humans.
The idea behind CRISPR originated from how bacteria defend themselves against viruses. Whenever a virus attacks, these bacteria take a piece of the DNA of the invading virus and incorporate it into its own DNA sequence. Then, whenever that virus tries to attack again, the bacteria can look at the snippet of DNA that it saved and “remember” how to defend itself.
Scientists use the technology in CRIPSR-Cas9 in the same way, cutting parts of the genome away and inserting other snippets. Imagine being able to pinpoint the gene sequence that causes sickle-cell disease. Or the gene in crops that allow them to be more disease-resistant. Or even create a gene sequence that would make mosquitos resistant to malaria. Scientists can use the same technique that bacteria use to edit the gene, making snips and cuts, to cure diseases, help our crops, or even make a malaria-proof mosquito. This is the promise of CRISPR.
But, as they say in Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. What happens if the snip occurs in the wrong place? What happens if an edit in the DNA code results in an unintended consequence? And what happens if these detrimental changes are passed to future generations?
Here to talk to us today is Dr. Leila Jamal. Leila is genetic counselor, a bioethicist, and is involved in health policy. She reported on the ethics of using CRISPR to the National Society of Genetic Counselors. She joins us today to talk about the promise, but also about the ethical concerns, that result from the use of CRISPR.