CRISPR-Cas9: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility-
If you, like the majority of Americans, have ever watched any of the wildly popular Avengers movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, then you have most likely and understandably, thought to yourself: “Wouldn’t it be cool if I had superpowers like the Avengers?” Or, perhaps, you have gone to a science museum and witnessed the fossilized bones of a T-Rex meticulously reconstructed in an exhibit, and wondered if you’d ever drive through the gates of a real-life Jurassic Park. Or, maybe, you simply wish that a genetic disease that has impacted you or a loved one would finally be cured. None of these was thought plausible a mere three decades ago. However, when molecular biologist Yoshizumi Ishino discovered CRISPR-Cas9, everything changed.
CRISPR-Cas9, which stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats possessing a Cas9 enzyme,” has the unique ability to cut and splice together strands of DNA. As reported by The New York Times:
Scientists can use Crispr-Cas9 to home in on a specific region of the genome and snip it in two. Sensing trouble, the cell rushes to heal its genetic wound, sometimes using a similar-looking stretch of nearby, intact DNA as a template as it stitches the pieces back together. This gives researchers an opportunity to splice in a tailor-made template of their own, in the hopes that the cell will incorporate the intended change.” (Wu, 2020, paras. 9)
CRISPR can be used for a variety of applications ranging anywhere from editing genomes with the ability to change DNA sequences and gene function, to defending your body from viruses that you have contracted previously. Therefore, theoretically, this technology could be used to genetically change human beings so that they possess seemingly superhuman abilities, to recreate an organism similar to a dinosaur using bird DNA, or even to cure numerous hereditary diseases.
Unfortunately, due to the newness of the technique and the dangers that could be fostered from even the smallest of mistakes, there are still some pitfalls to this method of genetic engineering. For example, according to Science Magazine, the Cas9 enzyme, the basis for how CRISPR works, can be difficult to fully control and could possibly cut unintended DNA strips, resulting in mutations or even cancer. Also, for many diseases to be cured, the genes of the person with that disease would need to be removed from the body temporarily, which is currently impossible, because if the cells were first removed and then repaired, too few would survive when put back in the living body (Kaiser, 2016, paras. 4-5).
In addition, there are numerous ethical issues that arise from this power over living things. Sperm, egg and embryo cell genome editing is currently illegal in many countries because of these cells' innate ability to pass down modifications made to them from generation to generation, even if those modifications are accidental or dangerous. Furthermore, gene editing can fulfill a prejudiced agenda if used incorrectly. This is where science risks veering into eugenics. As stated on History.com, “Eugenics is the practice or advocacy of improving the human species by selectively mating people with specific desirable hereditary traits. It aims to reduce human suffering by ‘breeding out’ disease, disabilities and so-called undesirable characteristics from the human population.” (Onion et al., 2017, paras. 1) Most often associated with the aims of World War II Germany, when Adolf Hitler relentlessly attempted to create the “perfect pure German,” eugenics has seen little success. However, today with the modern power of CRISPR, newly omnipotent scientists could simply decide what they considered to be “genetically superior traits” and bring them to reality, slowly conforming society.
Overall , many gene scientists and bioethicists today are faced with the question: “Is utilizing CRISPR worth it?” As scientists learn about and advance this amazing and potentially life-saving technology more and more, this question is becoming more pertinent to answer.
Meskó, B., PhD. (2019, July 11). What Could CRISPR Do Tomorrow? Retrieved November 25, 2020, from https://medicalfuturist.com/what-could-crisprcas9-do-tomorrow/
Ng, D. (2020, July 03). A Brief History of CRISPR-Cas9 Genome-Editing Tools. Retrieved November 25, 2020, from https://bitesizebio.com/47927/history-crispr/
Onion, A., Sullivan, M., & Mullen, M. (Eds.). (2017, November 15). Eugenics. Retrieved November 25, 2020, from https://www.history.com/topics/germany/eugenics
Vidyasagar, A. (2018, April 21). What Is CRISPR? Retrieved November 25, 2020, from https://www.livescience.com/58790-crispr-explained.html
Wu, K. (2020, October 31). Crispr Gene Editing Can Cause Unwanted Changes in Human Embryos, Study Finds. Retrieved November 25, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/31/health/crispr-genetics-embryos.html