CRISPR: The Craziest Thing You’ve Never Heard of
It’s possible that you’ve heard of CRISPR. If you have, then you can put it in the category of the craziest thing you’ve ever heard of. The point is, this is not crazy just because you haven’t heard of it — properly understood, this is the kind of thing that blows your mind every time you remember to think of it.
If you have never heard of CRISPR, you’re not alone. I did an informal poll of my friends and family, and almost all of the people I asked didn’t know. These are all people who are generally well-informed and up-to-date on what’s going on in the world. And despite being named the Breakthrough of the Year in 2015 by Science (one of the world’s top academic journals), and being called things like “the thing that will change everything forever”, most people don’t know the first thing about it.
Ok, so enough build up. What is CRISPR? In short, it’s a gene editing tool. Gene editing is the process whereby we are able to engineer changes in the DNA of a living organism. (There’s a lot of really good explanations of CRISPR already out there, so I won’t go through the effort of duplicating those efforts. If interested, this video is really good, and highlights many of the other issues talked about in this article. If you are more of a visual learner, I’d even say just go ahead and watch that — you can always come back for more here once that grabs your attention).
You might be thinking, oh ok, I’ve heard of gene editing. You probably have. A Pew poll in 2016 found that a majority of Americans had heard about gene editing at least a little bit. But have you heard of CRISPR? Because there’s a difference between it and anything related to gene editing that came before it. A big difference. Here’s a few reasons:
CRISPR is incredibly precise in its ability to edit genes. Before, gene editing had a high likelihood of not working correctly, or only partially working. No more.
It is very cheap. CRISPR is orders of magnitude cheaper than the most common previous gene editing technology.
It works on any type of cell (microorganism, plant, animal, human).
It works on live cells, including germ cells that permanently encode the modification into the organism.
We’ll return to that last point in a bit, because it’s important. But to start, it is worth realizing just how powerful this is.
We’re talking science fiction kind of stuff. Respected scientists are talking about the feasibility of Jurassic Park in completely serious tones; George Church, a scientist at Harvard Medical School, is actively working to resurrect woolly mammoths. They’re also talking about a cure for aging, solving world hunger, and providing unlimited clean energy.
The Good Stuff
In almost every article, the main promise of CRISPR is the curing of disease. This has merit, as genetic diseases and viruses are the most obvious targets of gene editing research. And it’s already working. CRISPR has been used in mice to cure muscular dystrophy, eliminate HIV, reverse Huntington’s Disease, and kill cancer cells.
In one fell swoop, the CRISPR technology has the chance to help us solve some of our most intractable medical challenges. There has probably never been a more exciting time to be a geneticist.
It should be obvious that the applications of CRISPR go well beyond the scope of disease research. That’s where the hard questions come in. No one is going to be opposed to curing muscular dystrophy. The danger is that this is a Trojan Horse — sneaking in under the guise of medical cures could come something with the power to fundamentally change the world and human beings, or destroy us altogether.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari describes the story of Gilgamesh as being the defining myth of the modern era. Gilgamesh was a powerful warrior who determined to defeat death. He failed in his quest, learning that death was man’s inevitable destiny. But where he failed, modern medicine aims to succeed. This is what Harari calls “The Gilgamesh Project.”
There is also an adjacent myth — the myth of Frankenstein. This is the story of a scientist who tries to create a superior being, and instead creates a monster. It warns us that trying to play God will only lead to our destruction.
The problem, Harari claims, is that the story of Gilgamesh ultimately wins out because no one can argue with it. The pursuit of health, the curing of disease, and the fight against death are just inherently valuable. “This is why the Gilgamesh Project is the flagship of science. It serves to justify everything science does. Dr Frankenstein piggybacks on the shoulders of Gilgamesh. Since it is impossible to stop Gilgamesh, it is also impossible to stop Dr Frankenstein.”
There is plenty to dispute about this, and scientists are right to argue that the so-called “Gilgamesh Project” is far from the only purpose of science. I use it to illustrate the more general concern that we can let our optimism about the promise of technology blind us to its potential risks.
The point here is not to be dramatically apocalyptic, and especially not to stoke fears about science and scientists. But it is important to be clear-eyed and direct about the real life scenarios we’re actually talking about here.
After learning about the power of CRISPR, one of the first thing that comes to mind is the idea of “designer babies.” This is a common trope in futuristic stories, and speaks to some of our greatest anxieties about genetic manipulation.
Firstly, it is important to establish that “designer babies” are very much on the table with CRISPR. Scientists in China have already edited human embryos. Although the success rate was not at the level that would be needed for any kind of widespread implementation, the technology is there. It’s now only a matter of time and improvement until it could be considered safe enough to use on viable embryos. Just a few days ago, the first American team of scientists to genetically edit human embryos revealed they had conducted their experiments.
In the discussion of “designer babies,” many are quick to address the concern that it would be used to alter things like hair color, or height. Scientists will say that many of those physical traits are actually very complex, and we do not currently understand the dynamic interplay of genes that produce them. Again, this is not so much a statement that this will not happen as it is a conditional reassurance that it will not happen soon.
In 2016, a STAT-Harvard poll found that a strong majority of Americans thought that changing genes of unborn babies to improve their intelligence or physical characteristics should be illegal (83%). Interestingly, a majority also thought it should also be illegal to change genes of unborn babies to reduce their risk of developing serious diseases (65%).
Perhaps this is not surprising. After all, we’re talking about fundamentally messing with the core of what makes us who we are (not to mention that it sounds eerily like the premise of a zombie apocalypse film). But when it comes down to it, truly, how many parents will deny a procedure that ensures their child doesn’t develop Huntington’s disease? How many parents will not do everything they can to guarantee the safety, health, and ability of their child?
Sure, it seems scary now, but there’s a long history of new technologies being shunned at first, and normalized over time. This was the case when the method of molecular cloning was first established in the 1970s. The idea of cloning initially caused public concern, but this faded over time as cloning became more widely used and there were no significant public health hazards. Now cloning is an essential method in any molecular biology lab.
When the first few genetically modified babies are born, it will surely be a polarizing event. But the more it happens, the more pressure people will feel to follow suit. It is not hard to imagine a time when society might look down on parents for not genetically inoculating their children against severe diseases.
Through this lens, we can better understand how the anxiety about “designer babies” is likely misrepresented. The problem is not that people will genetically alter their children based on whimsical preference (although that may happen), but that people will be coerced into doing so in order for their child to participate and be competitive in society. This type of problem is one that cuts along lines of power. Those who can afford to do this are the most likely to confer these advantages to their children, thus compounding the established power disparities between social classes (and in some cases, by extension, racial groups). This may start out as disease prevention, but it is not hard to imagine it could soon move into things like intelligence, strength, metabolism, or any other such physical advantages.
As Harari warned, these possibilities piggyback off of the “Gilgamesh Project”: the promise to an end of disease, and the hint of immortality. It is hard to separate genetic changes for the purpose of disease prevention, and those for the purpose of better physical health and well-being. Once we allow for one, it is unclear if we can stop people from taking the next step to the other.
The potential creation of “designer babies” highlights a further concern: the editing of the germline. Germline editing not only causes a genetic change in individuals, but would also mean that individuals would pass on that alteration to their descendants. If this practice were to become widespread, it would likely lead to the species-wide change in our DNA — in effect, the creation of a genetically distinct species.
Even so, standard inheritance is only so powerful, especially if only a small segment of the population adopts the genetic alterations. There is an even more drastic scenario that involves a method called gene drive. Simply, a gene drive causes the mutation made by CRISPR to be replicated in the offspring, nearly guaranteeing that the offspring inherit the change. This has the power to make a genetic change sweep through an entire population at an exponentially faster pace than normal.
This has obvious consequences for our early discussion of designer babies, but it also has much broader implications for its application beyond humans. As suggested in the image above, a change in a single mosquito could ripple through a population. Tinkering on a single individual could have an enormous impact on a whole ecosystem. And this is not a theoretical possibility; scientists have already produced this in fruit flies.
Thus we gain a power that can not hyperbolically be described as “God Mode”. This is an ability to create new species, to alter life as we desire, and to fundamentally change ourselves. While evolution operates on a huge timescale, creating balanced ecosystems with its own natural checks and balances, genetic engineering allows us to artificially induce genetic mutations that can spread throughout the world in a relative blink of an eye.
With Great Power…
Remember when I said that middle schoolers were already using CRISPR in their classrooms? That point should drive home with a lot more import than it did initially. Because CRISPR is so easy to do, it gives its power to almost anyone who wants to use it. Not everyone will have the laboratory equipment, knowledge, or access to inflict much damage, at least for now.
But with DIY CRISPR kits, and a potential future where anyone could use a gene drive, we end up equipping everyday people with biological weapons. Is this like giving every man, woman, and child access to nuclear weapons? No. But a more reasonable comparison might be giving everyone instructions for how to build a nuclear weapon. It would take a lot of study, and you would need to put in a lot of effort, but the instruction manual is out there for you to read and follow.
Someone with nefarious intentions could unleash a resistant bacteria that could tear through an entire species, including humans. The world could become populated by the whimsical creations of amateurs manifesting their fantasies. The scenarios abound, and they all seem to be ridiculous, but the technology exists for them right now.
Luckily, we have very smart and concerned people already thinking about this. In 2015, scientists, ethicists, historians, and activists all convened in Washington DC for the International Summit on Human Gene Editing. Their main objective: to address the implications of CRISPR. This was inspired by the Asilomar conference that occurred in 1975 to address molecular cloning.
Like Asilomar, the 2015 Summit aimed to shape guidelines and regulations that scientists would agreed to abide by. But scientists also learned from some of the shortcomings of Asilomar, this time making a stronger effort to engage with public concerns and involve a wider audience.
Ultimately, they agreed that scientists should ensure that there is stronger societal approval of CRISPR’s applications before using it on viable human embryos. In a summary, the meeting organizers stated that inheritable human genome editing should not take place until it was proven to be safe and effective, as well as accepted by broad societal consensus.
Biologists are developing this technology at almost a breakneck speed. Understandably: it is incredibly exciting, a geneticist’s dream. But it also outpaces the public’s ability to understand or even know about what is going on. Remember when you hadn’t heard about CRISPR? Like 5 minutes ago?
The public is clearly worried about the implications of genetic engineering, even for seemingly only positive things like disease prevention. But this is not a conversation that is entering into the mainstream discussion of policy. Scientists are doing an effective job of regulating themselves and thinking through the practical and ethical concerns. However, we should aspire to a more democratic decision-making process where the broader public makes collective decisions on what we want to happen. Without taking an intentional attitude to this, it is most likely that the technology will continue to move forward, and we will be forced to react to its consequences.
We also don’t want to have an overly alarmist response to the technology. CRISPR has broad applications in biology, many of which carry no public health or social risk, but nonetheless are incredibly helpful in biological and genetic research. While we should deeply consider regulations that may be necessary to constrain the negative impacts of CRISPR on society, we have to be careful not to demonize the technology itself.
I do not mean to suggest that we are doomed to a reality of widespread genetic engineering, or that it is inevitable. I also don’t want to give the impression that CRISPR does not have the potential to greatly benefit humanity — it certainly does. But I do want to make sure that we are not blinded by its promise and ignore all the risk. We do not want to look back and see how, in the pursuit of perfection, we created a monster.