8 Ways CRISPR-Cas9 Can Change the World

May 31, 2017

by Mark Crawford ASME.org

Genetic engineering is on the cusp of transformational change, thanks to CRISPR-Cas9, a genome-editing tool that came to the forefront in 2012. Created by co-inventor Jennifer Doudna, a molecular biologist at University of California-Berkeley, CRISPR-Cas9 allows scientists to alter the DNA of different organisms with high speed and precision (until just recently, engineering genes was a time-consuming and laborious procedure that often ended in failure).

CRISPR works by injecting a DNA construct into a living organism. The construct is composed of the Cas9 enzyme that cuts or deletes a segment of DNA, a sequence of RNA that guides the Cas9 to the correct location to cut, and a new DNA template that repairs the cut and alters the gene.

“We are getting to a point where we can investigate different combinations of genes, controlling when, where, and how much they are expressed, and investigate the roles of individual bases of DNA,” states Nicola Patron, a molecular and synthetic biologist at the Earlham Institute in the UK, in a recent article on vox.com. “Understanding what DNA sequences do is what enables us to solve problems in every field of biology from curing human diseases, to growing enough healthy food, to discovering and making new medicines, to understanding why some species are going extinct.”

Eight Impacts of CRISPR

Below are eight ways that CRISPR will likely impact the world:

1. Remove malaria from mosquitos. Scientists have created mosquitoes that are resistant to malaria by deleting a segment of mosquito DNA. The altered mosquitos passes on the resistance genes to 99 percent of their offspring, even when they mated with normal mosquitos.

2. Treating Alzheimer’s disease. CRISPR-based platforms have been developed to identify the genes controlling the cellular processes that lead to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, hopefully leading to new treatments.

3. Treating HIV. The HIV virus inserts its DNA into the cells of the human host. CRISPR has been successful in removing the virus’s DNA from the patient’s genome. Other genetic sequences will likely be found that eliminate HIV, herpes, hepatitis, and other dangerous viruses.

4. Develop new drugs. Pharmaceutical companies such as Bayer AG are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to develop CRISPR-based drugs to treat heart disease, blood disorders, and blindness.

5. Livestock. CRISPR/Cas9 has been utilized in China to delete genes in livestock that inhibit muscle and hair growth to grow larger stock for the country's commercial meat and wool industries. This could become a common way in the future to expand livestock industries.

6. Agricultural crops. Researchers are using CRISPR to discover new ways to improve crop disease resistance and environmental stress tolerance in plants. If successful, this could result in new crops to help feed the global population.

7. Develop new cancer treatments. CRISPR can modify immune cells to make them more effective at targeting and destroying cancer cells. CRISPR can also be used evaluate how genes can be studied to determine their sensitivity to new anti-cancer drugs, thereby developing a personalized treatment plan with the best possibility of success.

8. Reduce our need for plastic. CRISPR can be used to manipulate a type of yeast that transforms sugars into hydrocarbons, which can be used to make plastic—greatly reducing the need to rely on petroleum-based resources for plastics, easing stress on the environment.

Editing Humans

Ethical issues abound for genetic engineering with CRISPR—especially in humans. Many people are concerned about the creation of "designer babies" with genetic enhancements. The technology could be used to create genetic discrimination through eugenics. “We could see the emergence of genetic haves and have nots, leading to even greater inequality than we already live with,” comments Marcy Darnovsky of San Francisco's Center for Genetics and Society.

The UK has formally approved gene editing in human embryos, for research purposes only. In the U.S., a science advisory panel formed by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine has shown for modifying human embryos with certain heritable diseases.

CRISPR has the distinct ability to alter the course of human evolution—to improve society for the greater good or, in the wrong hands, to diminish the human experience. Most genetic engineers agree that they must proceed with caution and good governance.

There are thousands of applications for CRISPR. The sky is the limit. But we have to be careful.
Dr. Carl June, University of Pennsylvania

“There are thousands of applications for CRISPR,” says Dr. Carl June, a noted immunologist from the University of Pennsylvania. “The sky is the limit. But we have to be careful.” Mark Crawford is an independent writer