Imagine you were alive back in the nineteen sixties and were told that computer will soon take over everything. It will seem absurd but as it turned out it is true. And we are at a similar point in genetic engineering.
A Brief History of Genetic Engineering
We have been engineering life since the old days. Turning Wolves into dogs. Changing the properties of plants. All through selective breeding. And although we have been doing it for a long time we have never really understood how it worked. Until we discovered DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) which is the code for life that guides everything from your looks to your growth and development. DNA is made of bases which decide everything about the creature. Change the bases and you change the creature. We started experimenting in the 1960 by bombarding plants with radiation causing random mutations in the DNA. Then the 1970’s came and we inserted DNA into bacteria to study and modify them. In 1974 the first genetically modified animal was born along with many other things that started to pop out and be sold to the public. The problem was that gene editing was complicated, expensive, and took a lot time to do. This has all changed with CRISPR Cas9.
Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats
With CRISPR the cost of genetic engineering has dropped and the effort required has decreased too. Instead of taking years it takes few weeks and basically anyone with a lab can do it. CRISPR is such a revolution but how did it happen and how does it work ?
The Oldest War on Earth
Bacteria and viruses have been fighting since the dawn of life. Viruses do this by inserting their own DNA into the bacteria and uses them as factories to produce more of themselves. Most of the time the bacteria fails to defend itself because it is to weak. But when it survives it stores a the DNA of the virus in their own genetic code in a DNA archive called CRISPR. It is stored safely until it is needed. If the virus attacks again the bacteria makes an RNA copy of the DNA and makes a secret weapon. A protein called CAS9. The protein now scans the bacteria insides for sign of the virus invader by comparing every bit of DNA it finds to the sample from the archive. When it finds its match, it is activated and cuts out the virus DNA, making it useless, protecting the bacterium against the attack.
What is so Special ?
The revolution began when scientists figured out that CRISPR is programmable. You can give it a copy of the DNA you want to modify and put system into a living cell.
Projects of CRISPR
Ending diseases. In 2015 scientists infected rat labs with the HIV virus and used CRISPR giving it the proper DNA and were able to remove more than 50% of the HIV cells in their body. This is a heads up for all of us. In a few decades we might be able to cure other diseases that have been hunting the humankind like Herpes could be eradicated this way. We could do the same for cancer. We can edit the immune cells and make them better cancer cells hunters. This isn’t only done on rats we can also do it on humans. In fact the USA has approved the use of CRISPR on human being in early 2016. We could also use it for genetic diseases. Genetic diseases are caused when there are incorrect orders of bases of the DNA. As you are reading this we are already building a modified version of CAS-9 the could fix the bases in the DNA.
Science Fiction turning into a reality.
While this might seem like science fiction, with CRISPR we can turn it into a reality. We can modify humans. For example before the human is born we can modify the embryo which it is created from. Therefore changing many of the traits of the human being. But believe it or not it has already been done. Scientists in China have already done this. The first engineered human to be born will not be overly modified. It will have the trait of being immune to a deadly disease. Give it more time the whole species will be modified. With time, to be a genetically engineered human will be a right since it protects you of many diseases.
While CRISPR is a revolution for everyone for scientist, even to the public. It remains a first generation tool. It still needs a lot of work in order to be available and to make it even better. But certainly in our lifetime.