Genetic engineering is the manipulation of DNA to alter an organisms phenotype in a specific manner. It is also referred to as genetic modification. We are seeing more evidence of genetic engineering across a number of industries; from genetic modification in agriculture to altering cells in order to better fight disease. While there are strong opinions on either side of ethics of genetic engineering, there is no denying the increase in its research and application.
In the field of genetic research, it is wise to keep a close eye on CRISPR technology. CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is considered a key player for editing genomes. CRISPR refers to an enzyme that is capable of cutting strands of DNA, and forms the basis for CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology. The term CRISPR is often used to indicate the systems that can be programmed to manipulate and edit specific genetic code at precise locations, allowing researchers to permanently modify genes in living cells and organisms. CRISPR genome editing allows scientists and researchers to accelerate disease study, including cancer and mental illness. The technology comes from organisms that use CRISPR-RNA and Cas proteins, including Cas9, to fight attacks by viruses and foreign actors. These organisms fight by destroying the DNA of the foreign invader. When these components are moved to other organisms it allows for gene editing.
According to a recent article in Forbes magazine, CRISPR gene editing is revolutionizing medicine by driving nearly all cutting-edge discoveries in biotechnology today. “With CRISPR, the power to edit a living genome like an author edits a book has moved from science fiction to reality,” states Dr. Robert Glatter, emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. CRISPR affordable, quick and easy to use, resulting in its widespread adoption in laboratories around the world. Researchers are using CRISPR to eliminate pathogens, create plants that can withstand harsh environments, and wipe out disease. CRISPR can also be applied directly in embryo, reducing time to modify genes.
The widespread use of CRISPR has not come without concerns surrounding the ethics and safety of genetic experimentation. When news erupted about scientists that used CRISPR to engineer human embryos, a heated debate arose over how CRISPR should be used. Concerns range from edited organisms that could potentially disrupt ecosystems, to risky genome editing. The majority of ethical debate relates to genome editing in humans, since changes made would be passed down to future generations. CRISPR is so easy to use the human genome editing no longer requires millions of dollars or years and years of training. As of 2014 about 40 countries discouraged or banned research on germline editing due to ethical and safety concerns. Issues surrounding side effects due to edits in the wrong place, and mosaicism (when some cells carry the edit while others do not) further fuel concerns over safety.
While debates continue surrounding the ethical and safety ramifications of genome editing, there is no denying the positive outcomes related to disease elimination and diagnostic possibilities. The ease of gene modification will have life changing implications now and in generations to come.
About the Author
Tania Martin-Mercado, PhD, MS, MPH, is the President and CEO of Phronetik, a biotechnology company headquartered in North Texas.