Our genetic composition determines who we are and how we function. Genes are the basic physical and functional units of life, which passes codes or sets of information from our ancestors onto us. They are not only responsible for determining our physical traits (i.e. our height, the color of our eyes) but also our immune system that’s responsible for fighting diseases. Genetic Engineering, since the past decades, has attempted to understand how information is encoded onto a gene and how the genetic structure could be modified to change traits in organisms. The process of gene modification, also known as gene editing, has been hailed as one of the greatest innovations of medicine in recent decades.
The development of cheap and more efficient gene editing techniques in the past couple of years has propelled the technology into the forefront. Clustered Regularly Inter-Spaced Palindromic Repeats, also known as CRISPR, has been considered revolutionary owing to its low cost and simplicity over contemporary techniques. The CRISPR-Cas9 tool enables scientists to make precise genetic edits – by locating an exact DNA sequence within a gene, removing it using the Cas9 enzyme, and pasting a new DNA sequence in its place. Through this process, the CRISPR-Cas9 tool is able to modify the ‘genetic instruction manual’ that we have inherited from our parents.
The potential applications of gene editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9 are immense. It could be used to modify the genetic composition of plants, which could result in genetically modified fruits and vegetables for our consumption. Imagine a world where tomatoes are seed-less and strawberries taste sweeter. A team in Spain is using CRISPR to eject gluten out of wheat, in order to be edible by people suffering from the coeliac disease. It can also be used to edit the mosquito genome to eradicate malaria once in for all. In humans, CRISPR has the potential to boost gene therapy, which works by the insertion of healthy genes into cells to cure diseases caused by faulty ones. Such therapies have the potential to treat all kinds of ailments – from cancer to Huntington’s disease.
Of course, several companies have been quick to monopolize on the relatively low cost of this technology by manufacturing gene editing kits that are easily accessible. Synthego, founded by former SpaceX engineers, have made such kits available to researchers and academicians with the sole objective to conduct scientific research. A global supplier of biological research products, AMS Bio, has also introduced CRISPR-Cas9 kits for gene knock-out, gene knock-in, and gene mutation applications. As using CRISPR technology required extensive knowledge, these products are mostly sold to researchers who lack funding to conduct gene-editing experiments.
The potentially low-cost of CRISPR technology has also propelled the sale of do-it-yourself (DIY) CRISPR-Cas9 kits. Josiah Zayner, a Ph.D. in biophysics and a self-proclaimed biohacker, successfully crowdfunded a campaign for a DIY CRISPR kit in 2016. Next year, at a biotech conference in San Francisco, he created a stir by injecting his left forearm with CRISPR in an attempt to grow bigger muscles. The number of biohackers promoting self-experimentation by using DIY gene editing kits has increased significantly, forcing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue a strict warning against the sale of such kits, stating the illegality of self-administration.
Only recently have scientists started to realize the damage that can be incurred by CRISPR technology. CRISPR can cause unwarranted mutations that may prove dangerous; therefore its use should be limited to laboratories, where only experienced professionals can use it on lab animals. The sale of DIY kits has enabled people, with no understanding of the technology, to play God by doing random experimentations on animals and in the worst case, on themselves. The onset of any genetic mutations can be extremely detrimental not only to the individual but also to the surrounding environment.