The Miracle of CRISPR
by Vittorio Compagno for the Carl Kruse Blog
The world has evolved incredibly fast in the past 100 years. The invention of cars, airplanes, computers has been as revolutionary for our society as shocking.
Every 50 years or less, humans have seen an increasing number of new technologies only dreamed of in the past.
Sci-fi became, in fact, real.
Now, picture 50 years from now. What could be more sophisticated than technology today?
An evergreen hope for the future of science resides in the field of genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering is something that we, as a species, have been doing for millennia. From the first cultivation in Mesopotamia to our pets, every selection we have done in our environment has been genetic engineering.
That’s the reason some wolves are now docile dogs, watermelons are redder inside (and more nutrient), and crops more productive. In a naive fashion, we were wandering into the dark, not knowing the impact of our choices. That changed in the modern era, with something that would alter our view of life and natural selection forever.
What is DNA?
DNA contains all of the information that makes us, us.
It works like this: In every cell of the human body there’s DNA. It contains microscopic molecules that carry out information. This information is used in defining our external and internal traits. It is what makes you tall or short, blonde or brunette, it determines your height, your muscle development, but also it decides whether you have two feet or ten.
It is the product of millions of years of evolution, and it comes from our primordial multicellular ancestors. For example, this is the reason why we share 60% of our DNA with bananas.
Soon after it was discovered, scientists started playing with DNA the way a child plays with Legos. The first experiments on dogs brought to light species like Chihuahuas and Poodles, pets that couldn’t have survived in the wild if not for human intervention.
Nowadays, DNA modifications involve modified crops, tomatoes, and other fruits. It has been proposed to use gene-altering techniques to exterminate bloodthirsty mosquitoes, responsible for millions of deaths. The discovery of DNA modifications has been a game-changer, and it could potentially affect all living things.
One of the most persisting problems in DNA sequencing and modification is related to cost.
For years, researchers have had to rely on big funds to experiment with the code of life and the high costs of sequencing DNA.
But all of this might change soon thanks to the discovery of CRISPR.
The Wonders Of CRISPR
When viruses attack bacteria, they inject thousands of “copies” of themselves into their victims in the form of RNA. That makes possible the reproduction of numerous clones of that virus.
When mature enough, these copies start eating bacteria from the inside, eventually killing it.
But, if the bacteria survive, they clone the virus’ RNA, creating a “mugshot” of the attacker. This is incredibly useful, as it prevents the cells from dying the next time it encounters the same virus.
All of this magic is the CRISPR process, and it is made possible by an enzyme, called Cas9, capable of breaking and analyzing DNA (and RNA).
Thanks to that, bacteria have been resisting and fighting viruses since the dawn of time.
The Cas9 enzyme cuts up RNA, from which the viruses’ copies come from, and it builds immunity, rendering the attack innocuous. This process would be pretty boring and ordinary if scientists didn’t discover one thing: Cas9 can essentially reprogram DNA. The enzyme can modify any gene in any plant or animal in a short time.
As soon as the process was discovered, scientists tried to treat genetic illnesses in animals and humans and battle infections. It has also been used to prepare pig organs for human transplants.
Researchers can now make these procedures for cheap.
Since its discovery, the CRISPR procedure has opened a Pandora box of possibilities.
Our Own Sci-Fi Future
With gene modifications, the ones who would benefit the most would be fragile human beings, victims of diseases. With a simple injection, we could change our response to the most common viruses, eradicating, for example, HIV.
This has already been tried in 2016 when scientists managed thanks to CRISPR to cut 52% of HIV cells in a laboratory rat.
If the first experiments work as intended, this procedure will be applied to broader scenarios.
Imagine reprogramming the genes in a human embryo to prevent hereditary diseases, like high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s, or Down syndrome. This would be a revolution. As usual, first adoptions will not be well received, but it will eventually become common sense to look for those diseases in DNA and just “turn them off”.
CRISPR could also help us fight one of our fiercest enemies: Cancer.
The first trials for Cancer treatment have already been approved.
As the website cancer.gov reports:
“The first trial in the United States to test a CRISPR-made cancer therapy was launched in 2019 at the University of Pennsylvania. The study, funded in part by NCI, is testing a type of immunotherapy in which patients’ immune cells are genetically modified to better “see” and kill their cancer.”
But the possibilities don’t end here.
The end of Aging?
Aging has been a constant presence in the history of human beings. Whether it is well-received or not, is it undeniable that the human body stops working as it should after a certain age. This could be changed. Since some of the mechanisms responsible for aging has been discovered, scientists have been trying to tamper with it, seeing if they could stop the process, or even revert it. With CRISPR all of this is in theory possible since DNA damage and degradation are keys in the aging mechanism.
This would be humanity’s biggest breakthrough and could have many more social implications than we could imagine.
Would you be willing to live for more than 100 years?
The Last Frontier
Finally, CRISPR could lead to one last breakthrough: human modification.
Since genes are programmable, and we have both the code (DNA) and the software (CRISPR) to them, we could theoretically modify every aspect of us.
One thing to know about genes. They are generally divided into genotypes (hereditary traits like blood sugar levels, or illnesses) and phenotypes (the color of your eyes, your height, your general traits).
Both can be altered.
But while the modification of phenotypes seems interesting (we could have a world of supermodels, wouldn’t that be boring?) what is important is the former. Imagine a world where we could give, hereditarily, the gift of intelligence, a better digestive mechanism (that would make the fortune of fast food chains), or better, no illnesses. Modifying hereditary heart disease predisposition, or curing Huntington’s disease could save millions. Then we could think about curing baldness or making everyone 2 meters taller. But these are the reasons why the research has gone forward, and it has shown promising results. For example, a historical clinical trial started in 2019 in Germany has cured a patient with thalassemia.
Since then, seven more people who suffer from the disease have been freed from the burden of constant blood transfusions.
It seems incredible, but it’s possible to have a world without illnesses.
Let’s only hope that this potentially bright future will be available to everyone who needs it, and not only to the ones who can afford it.
This Carl Kruse Blog homepage is at http://carlkruse.at
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
OTher articles by Vittorio include Planned Obsolescence, A War Fought With Lines of Code, and The Psychology of Colors on Social Media.
More on Carl Kruse here.