Seemingly out of nowhere, an amazing new technology called CRISPR has appeared. While the underlying biological process was identified less than 30 years ago, it is already both transforming biological and medical research, its producing mind-boggling new methods and processes both to deal with disease, as well as have profound impacts on food and livestock production.
CRISPR is a naturally occurring process that provides bacteria a defense against viruses and phages. Scientists have found a way to harness this natural process to revolutionize gene editing. One of the key scientists involved with this revolution, University of California Berkeley Professor Jennifer Doudna, and Sam Sternberg, one of her students, have co-written an excellent book on CRISPR, called A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution. The book is an excellent introduction both to the technology and its development, as well as to the potential and perils of it. What is especially noteworthy of the book is that is written in a very approachable way, something that presents a complicated scientific topic in a thorough way, yet still something that the average person, who may know no science beyond high school biology or chemistry, can understand with little difficulty.
CRISPR stands for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats". A palindrome is a word or name such BOB or RADAR that reads the same both forwards and backwards. In this case, it refers to the famous A, C, T, and G nucleotides of the genetic alphabet, which form short and repeated palindromes. In its naturally occurring form, it provides bacteria with a naturally occurring defense against viruses and phages. It provides "defense" by acting as a form of biological hedge-trimmer of the DNA of the invading virus. What researchers like Doudna and others have done is to modify the CRISPR mechanism so it can be used to edit DNA. In the space of just a few years, the CRISPR researchers have created a set of tools that can edit a DNA sequence, either removing a problematic series of letters or inserting a new sequence of letters. Moreover, they've created a technology that is both easy to use, as well as very low cost. Doudna says that one can set up a CRISPR lab for as little as $ 2,000!
The book is worthwhile simply as an interesting and very readable account of the process to develop CRISPR. Science often makes for dry, boring reading, but Doudna and her co-author, Sam Sternberg, have made it very interesting. Many, of course, really aren't interested in reading about how a scientific discovery was made, but they'll very likely be interested in the profound implications of this technology. That's because CRISPR offers incredible potential to cure terrible disease and improve food production, for example. At the same time, it has the potential to unleash incredible havoc! Let's explore both the positive and negative aspects of CRISPR.
For centuries humans have been tinkering with genetics. Farmers, for example, have been cross-breeding plants and animals to create desired improvements. Dog breeders have done the same for generations. More recently, scientists have developed the technology to exchange DNA from different species. Beneficial genetic characteristics of one species have been grafted into the DNA of another species to achieve desired improvements. Of course, there has been a predictable backlash against this, particularly opposition in certain quarters to GMO's (genetically modified organisms). Scientists say that plenty of precautions are being taken with GMO's, but many people remain uneasy. A number of countries, particularly in Europe, have banned GMO's in food.
Another place where there has been backlash has to do with trans-genic organisms such as mice. Many people are very uneasy with this type of genetic tinkering, sometimes on moral and religious grounds, other times simply out of fear of unintended consequences.
CRISPR offers a good solution to overcome the problems of transgenic biology. Instead of introducing foreign DNA into an organism, CRISPR merely modifies the existing DNA. It's also much simpler and much lower cost. So let's look at some of the tremendous potential of CRISPR.
Now that the human genome has been sequenced, the genetic cause of many terrible diseases has been determined. In some cases, the disease is caused by a single genetic typo. CRISPR offers the potential of making a correction to those genetic typos, thus providing a real cure to the victim. Needless to say, this is creating tremendous excitement.
At the same time, CRISPR offers an interesting potential way to overcome diseases such as malaria. For example, it may be possible to prevent malaria by modifying the genetics of the various mosquito species that are malarial vectors (i.e., a vector is the organism that transmits malaria). Alternatively, CRISPR may offer a way to eliminate those species. Implementing some of these changes might also make it possible to eliminate other mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue fever, West Nile Virus, or Zika.
CRISPR also offers great potential to address the food needs of the world's ever expanding population. Gene editing creates great potential to develop new crop species that are more drought and insect resistant, as well as increase yields of individual crops. Another benefit is the ability of CRISPR to produce breeds of farm animals that have more muscle mass and will yield more food.
These are but a few of the potential very positive developments that should come from CRISPR. So what could be bad about CRISPR? Unfortunately, there are lots of potential problems, and Doudna and Sternberg do an excellent job of discussing many of those problems. I believe the problems of CRISPR can be divided into three categories:
Problem Category #1: Unexpected Genetic Outcomes
While CRISPR is very effective at editing a genome, it's already understood that there can be unintended modifications that occur along with the intended ones. Scientists have studied this pretty carefully and concluded that this probably won't be a problem. This is because natural genetic processes also result in unintended outcomes, and there are other natural processes that overcome these. As an example, every human body generates unintended genetic flaws in the course of cell division, but the body has natural ways of correcting these errors. Scientists believe those natural defenses will tend to operate in the event of unintended outcomes from CRISPR.
On the other hand, there is one particular class of CRISPR processes that is REALLY SCARY! That's what is called a gene drive. If CRISPR is used to modify certain cells in the body, every cell thereafter will have that modification. If an unintended change is made, it could very quickly propagate throughout the natural world. Doudna and Sternberg say this is already a concern with some "gene drives" that have been contemplated in fruit flies, for example. While "gene drives" have great potential, they could also create lots of unintended havoc.
Problem Category #2: CRISPR in the Wrong Hands
As previously mentioned, Doudna and Sternberg point out that one can create a CRISPR lab for as little as $ 2,000. More importantly, one doesn't need a PhD in biology to implement the technology. While that's clearly beneficial in one sense, in another its really troubling. That's because ISIS, or some other terror group, or even North Korea's Kim Jong Eun, might use CRISPR to create a bioweapon. No doubt, military planners around the world are contemplating this possibility and taking appropriate counter-measures (see, for example, bit.ly/2uiCBBc)
Problem Category #3: Immoral Uses of CRISPR
While people everywhere understandably want to use CRISPR to overcome undesirable genetic defects, others are contemplating the possibility of creating "designer babies". CRISPR will make it very easy for couples to select/de-select traits such as hair and eye color, gender, and a whole host of other characteristics. While some things such as eye and hair color might seem benign, the obvious question is, where should the line be drawn? A few steps and there could easily lead to a latter day version of eugenics. Eugenics began as a 19th effort to improve the characteristics of humanity. One thing led to another, and eugenics ended up as a goal of the Nazis to eliminate undesirable characteristics from the gene pool. Auschwitz and the other death camps were but a mere application of the policy of eugenics.
The CRISPR train is gathering momentum daily. As Doudna and Sternberg note, it does have tremendous potential, but one can also see tremendous risk. To her credit, Doudna has early on called for limits on CRISPR in order to avoid some or all of the risks cited above. On a positive note, there seems to be an emerging scientific consensus on this. The authors correctly note that this isn't just a scientific issue, it is also one that needs input from bioethicists and religious leaders. So my question is, where is the Christian Church in all of this?
I firmly believe Christians need to be intimately involved in the development, utilization, and regulation of CRISPR. The question is, is that likely to happen? One of my great concerns is that Christian viewpoints on this may be less respected than they should be, simply because in the popular mind, Christians are anti-science. This perception of anti-science goes back to the fact that a high percentage of Christians still reject Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Thus, the popular conception for non-Christians is, if Christians can't even get Darwin right, how can possibly have anything worthwhile to contribute to a discussion about CRISPR and its uses?
I pointed this issue out early on in my book, The Unexpected Perspective. Christians, I argue, need to come up with a comprehensive view about Darwin if they're going to be able to participate fully in discussions about science going forward. Doudna and Sternberg clearly demonstrate the significance of CRISPR. It does have tremendous potential, but likewise, it has potential peril. Christians need to participate fully in any discussions about CRISPR, its tremendous potential, and its tremendous peril.