A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution
© 2017 Jennifer Doudna and Sam Sternberg
A few years ago I tuned into the middle of a science-news podcast and encountered a panel of otherwise sensible people caught up in an enthusiastic conversation about…crisper? Crisper drawers? I’d missed something.
What I’d missed was a story about CRISPR, a gene-editing tool with enormous and explosive potential for medicine and agriculture. The outgrowth of attempts to use bacteria as microsurgeons, CRISPR allows for fine-tuned genetic manipulation with reproducable results. The first half of A Crack in Creation delivers the story of how CRISPR as a tool was discovered, and this history of scientific investigation is followed by the author’s thoughts on the implications. While optimistic about the tool’s applications for agriculture and medicine, she admits that the potential for abuse in modifying the human genome itself is high.
Humans have been manipulating domesticated populations’ genomes for millennia, of course, but with clumsier methods: finding animals with expressed traits we favor, and breeding them while taking the rest home to cook. We have toyed with forcing mutations with chemical and radioactive agents, but the results thereof are unpredictable. Now, nearly two decades into the 21st century, we have the ability to make fine-tuned adjustments, with applications both serious and trivial. An internal biological weapon used to disarm viruses and effect cellular repair can instead be used as a tool to remove and supply whatever genes we desire.
We’ve already created mosquito populations which have been stripped of the ability to propagate malaria, and — depending on trials and the weight of government oversight — may use pigs to grow human organs for use in transplants. As Doudna warns, however, modifying humans — modifying ourselves — takes us into an area fraught with ethical quandaries. She speculates that we may wish to discriminate between germ cells (sperm and egg cells, which would be capable of reproducing whatever edits we make) and somatic cells, which constitute the rest of the body. Unless, of course, eugenics makes a comeback and we decide to create a race of supermen, a la Khan Noonian Singh. Then, germ cells would be fair game. (Okay, the bit about Khan is just me. As one of the principle discoverers of CRISPR, Doudna is seriously concerned about the ethical implications, to the point that she’s had a literal dream about Hitler contacting her with an interest in learning how to use CRISPR.)
Although I’m still trying to understand the mechanics of it (as much as I like biology, genetics is a definite weak point for me), the potential for this excites me. Medicine is going to go very interesting places in the decades to come.