Writer: Zehra Beril Evcil
Editor: Ben Freeman
Artist: Vera Liu
CRISPR-Cas9, standing for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, is a new and exciting gene editing method. It enables a change to an organism’s genome in a method that is cheaper, faster, more accurate and very efficient. A human-created piece of CRISPR RNAs (transcribed from CRISPR sequences) binds to a targeted area of DNA and the Cas9 enzyme. The modified RNA recognizes the DNA sequence, and the Cas9 enzyme cuts the targeted location of DNA. Afterwards, the cell’s own DNA repair system is used to add, delete or change pieces of genetic material. In other words, CRISPR RNA identifies old DNA and places it with the new genetic material while the Cas9 enzyme cuts the old DNA out.
CRISPR system can be used in healthcare, to fight bacteria and viruses such as HIV, where vaccines fail. Immunologist Dr. Justin Taylor and his colleagues, in their preprint for a journal, said that using CRISPR to edit B cells could produce “immunity against pathogens for which traditional vaccination has failed.” Changing the coding of the B-cells (protective cells) in their DNA could make them stronger and better adapted to create antibodies to fight viruses and bacteria. It would be an efficient and permanent way of immunizing human body against viruses and bacteria. “We can see gene editing [to protect against viruses] becoming feasible,” said Dan Wattendorf, director of Innovative Technology Solutions at the Gates Foundation. These new ways of using CRISPR opens up a whole new world of healthcare and medical development.
CRISPR has other implementations in everyday life beyond fighting against viruses: it can, hypothetically, be utilized to change the characteristics of the human body. Josiah Zayner, a former NASA biochemist, became the first person to use CRISPR to change his own genes himself. He owns a company called ODIN that sells DIY (Do It Yourself) CRISPR kits, basically starter kits for gene editing, to include a free guide for anyone wanting to experiment on themselves. He live-streamed an event, injecting himself on the arm with CRISPR that (theoretically) enhanced his muscles by editing the gene for myostatin, a protein that regulates muscle growth, while there is still no exact data showing the changes of his cells.
There are so many different approaches to CRISPR: while not all of them are very optimistic about gene editing. Regarding the ethical concerns about CRISPR, a lot of people believe that CRISPR will devastate the variety of the gene pool and will provide a genetic advantage to those who can afford a gene therapy which will cause bigger differences between poor and rich. For example, He Jiankui, a professor in Shenzhen, altered twin girls’ genes against HIV. This angered general public because it was not found ethical to change hereditary genes while he faced serious punishments about his opinions about CRISPR.
As a final thought, CRISPR can be implemented in our daily life as an alternative to vaccines and with DIY CRISPR kits. While it could be helpful to immune people with diseases that do not have a vaccination, many problems may arise if some untrained people attempt to use DIY CRISPR kits, without careful supervision, and if CRISPR is taken to extremes and used to change hereditary genes such as intellect and physical appearance, ethical problems might arise.