Tinker, Tailor . . . Biohacker


by Tony Kendrew

Do you sometimes wonder just how far biotech should go? Perhaps you worry now and then about the possibilities, the consequences, the dangers? Even feel a bit smug that you probably won’t be here to have to take a stand on the future’s biggest ethical issues. Or feel disappointed that you’ll miss the extraordinary developments just over the horizon. You doubt they’ll materialize in your lifetime. You feel OK about in vitro fertilization, have a strong opinion about GMO, but haven’t made up your mind about stem cell research. You need more facts – or more faith. And you don’t even want to touch the word eugenics.

You certainly can’t entertain the idea of global do-it-yourself genetic tinkering.

Well, it’s already here and it’s happening in a garden shed in Mississippi, and probably at a kitchen table not very far from you. It’s easy and it’s cheap and it’s called CRISPR.

It doesn’t really matter what CRISPR stands for, enough that it’s a recently discovered section of the genome which conveniently has clearly marked sections which can simply be removed or replaced. So you can edit the genes of mosquitoes to prevent females from producing fertile eggs. Great! That’s Part 1. Part 2, the gene drive, is where the fun begins. It means you can replace a sequence and include instructions to replace itself in the next generation too! The result is not just one infertile mosquito, but infertility for all its offspring – forever! With two little snips! Do you see where we’re going here?

(Gene drive: yeah, good name, very cool, very innocuous, like taking your convertible for a spin on Sunset Boulevard, one hand on the wheel.)

David Ishee of Mississippi clearly saw where we’re going. He wanted to breed the sagging skin trait out of his mastiff dogs. So he did. Why not? There was no one to stop him. It’s called biohacking. You only need a few hundred bucks. Find your virus genome sequence on the internet. Edit it at your kitchen table.

Genetic engineering! Suddenly everyone’s doing it. What fun!

Here are a few recent statements from CRISPR scientists in the news:

We may not be able to gauge the ecological impact of eradicating a species.

A mosquito can be developed capable of transmitting a specific pathogen.

If an edit cannot be corrected it should not be attempted.

Evolution may soon be guided by us.

No previous scientific advance, not even splitting the atom, has greater potential to endanger the world.

Gene drives should be built which can restore any DNA that has been removed.

MIT’s Broad Institute has licensed its CRISPR technology to Monsanto.

Some part of any population that has been edited should be retained in its original form.

Sobering thoughts, though some of them remind us of the enthusiasm and hopes of other scientists in the first rush of discovery – so innocent, so noble in sentiment, so shortsighted. Zen has a word for it, a word that conveys the Pollyanna optimism of the first satori: Zen stink. But stink is too soft a word for this. CRISPR isn’t just for bacteria, mosquitoes and dogs. It works on humans too. The prospects of unregulated biohacking are not so much sobering, as screamingly, let’s-not-even-go-there scary.

Then there’s the other side, the optimism, the hopes of the desperate residents of Nantucket, for example, a quarter of whom have Lyme Disease. They have recently endorsed a plan to introduce a mouse to the island, the vector in the spread of the disease, CRISPRed to resist the Lyme tick. If carried out, the disease is likely to be eradicated in a few mouse generations. Being an island, Nantucket is the perfect place to launch such a radical biological intervention – little chance of a mouse catching the ferry back to the mainland. Then what shall we say to the residents of Vermont (Lyme Disease incidence: 85 cases per 100,000) and Maine (incidence: 82 cases per 100,000) when they hear of their neighbors across the sound once again letting their children romp uninhibited in the grass?

And we will all hear of it. It is early days. This is the calm before the media storm. It isn’t just me who is wide-eyed at the news that scientists have now used CRISPR to tweak the genes of human embryos. We should all be impressed by the casual statement that, as far as genetics is concerned, we can now do pretty much what we want – especially when we understand that “we” doesn’t mean PhDs in multimillion biotech labs, let alone disgruntled dictators in faraway places, but people like you and me.

But this is already out of date. Jennifer Lopez will star in an NBC show that promises to explore the next generation of terror. The title for the series: C.R.I.S.P.R.

I’m indebted to … Radiolab, Update: CRISPR, February 24, 2017

And to Michael Specter’s in depth article, Rewriting the Code of Life in The New Yorker, January 2, 2017

And to an interview with him on PBS NewsHour, How CRISPR gene editing puts scientists in the driver’s seat of evolution, January 5, 2017


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