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Gene Editing - Bringing Science Fiction to Reality

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Joans Pires Jun 2, 2017

Would a Neanderthal Man believe you if you were to tell him that in the era you live in mankind lives in buildings that touch the skies, flies in metal birds, lives in a world controlled by machines or converses with metal boxes that respond to a feathery touch? Or rather, would a person living in the earlier twentieth-century nod in agreement when you mentioned the very same to him? Or would the eras before believe you, if you were to tell them of the advancements in the technology in the future, the improved health care, medication and lifestyle. Now, imagine yourself more than two centuries in the future where mankind might have colonized our galaxy, vacationed across the galaxy or, shared little resemblance to the way we look now. Comparing how information technology, a sector non-existent a century earlier, was and is now is a stuff of science fiction as our reality changes .

Deciphering the human genome (image source: TED)

The fascination that our species holds with genetics and genetic engineering is well known, what with science fiction books and TV series such as Doctor Who, The Expanse, and Star Wars focusing on various aspects of it . But, have we really held ourselves for the moment and considered to ourselves the mere possibility of living in a world where genetic engineering held more of a possibility? What if we could colonize Mars and inhabit it like they did in The Expanse or explore deeper into the discipline of Fringe Science? How far exactly are we from the world that is dominated by man-made “corrections”? Where mankind takes fate in its own hands and creates its own beings like our "creator"? Will there be a time where man can play God? Were the mad scientists dubbed to be villains in movies representatives of our future reality? Can we finally rid ourselves of the diseases, and pain and lead our civilization to the prosperity we envision? If yes, then how?

 

The world of genetics over the years has proven to be vast, fascinating and, most of all, the gateway to a brighter future just as the IT (Information Technology) was back in the 20th century. What is genetic engineering? Genetic engineering, by definition, is the modification of the characteristics of an organism by manipulating its genetic constituents. In simple words, it is the artificial manipulation of an organism’s genome by the use of biotechnology. Humans have been engineering life since the beginning of time through various methods of selective breeding (in-breeding and out breeding), we have been strengthening useful traits in plants and animals never really understanding the mechanism behind it. Modern Genetics came in to being through the rediscovery of Mendel’s workings – the Austrian Monk hypothesized the earliest theories of what would eventually be the fundamentals of genetics: The Law of Dominance, The Law of Segregation and The Law of Independent Assortment.  It was the discovery of DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953 that truly kick-started the field of genetic engineering. DNA, often dubbed as the code of life, is a complex molecule that directs the growth, development, reproduction and function of all living things. It is a self-replicating material which is present in nearly all living organisms as the main constituent of chromosomes and is the carrier of genetic information. It consists of four nitrogenous bases (Adenine (A), Thymine(T), Guanine(G), and Cytosine(C)), sugar and phosphate group. These four nucleotides are paired which makes up the code of life. Any alteration in this genetic code results in modification of the being.

Digital Representation of DNA Structure (Image Source: Mayo Clinic News Network)

Attempts at modification of DNA have been made ever since its discovery , giving rise to the discipline that we now call genetic engineering. In 1960s, scientists bombarded plants with radiation in an attempt to cause a mutation in the genetic code of the plant in order to get random chance variations. In 1970s, scientists inserted DNA snippets into bacteria, plants, and animals in order to study and modify them for research in the fields of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine), agriculture and sometimes, for experimentation purposes. In 1974, Rudolf Jaenisch and Beatrice Mintz showed that foreign DNA could be integrated into DNA of early mouse embryos and in the process created the first genetically modified mouse. This discovery eventually lead to mice becoming the standard tool for research and thus saved millions of lives.

 

In 1971,  Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, genetically engineered a new species of Pseudomonas bacteria, the oil eating bacteria, while working at a General Electric research facility in New York. This creation resulted in the famous Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303 (1980) case which dealt with whether a genetically modified organism could be patented or not. The US Supreme Court granted the patent making it the first patent to be given for an engineered modified organism. Today various chemicals, clotting factors, growth hormones and insulin are produced by the means of engineered life. In 1994, Flavr Savr, a genetically modified tomato became the first commercially grown genetically engineered food to be given a license for human consumption, marking the foray into genetically modified foods and the controversies surrounding them. An attempt to cure infertility was made with the help of MRT (mitochondrial replacement - a special kind of IVF where the baby’s mitochondrial DNA comes from a third party used in cases where mothers carry genes for mitochondrial diseases) in the year 1996 by embryologist Jacques Cohen in an attempt to produce individuals with three genetic parents. The first baby born using this procedure was Emma Ott in the year 1997.

In Vitro Fertilisation  (Image Source: ivfgreece.gr)

Over the years, humanity has observed a massive growth in the field of genetics. Though genetic engineering was an expensive process until the recent years, the same cannot be said now with the discovery of a new technology – CRISPR (Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) that brings down the cost of genetic engineering to a fraction of its earlier costs. CRISPR makes the concept of genetic engineering not only comparatively affordable but also easier and the time taken to conduct an experiment is lesser than it would be using the earlier techniques. CRISPR has the ability to change humanity forever with the possibility of curing disease, creating designer babies and potentially offering eternal youth. But what is CRISPR and how does it work?

 

CRISPR (CRISPR-Cas9) is a genome editing tool known for revolutionizing the field of genetics. It is a unique technology that enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA sequence.  It is known to be the simplest, fastest, cheapest and much more accurate method of gene manipulation than any previous gene editing technique .

 

CRISPR’s technology was created basis of observations of bacterias fighting viruses. Viruses that infect bacteria are called bacteriophages and are known to infect their bacterial hosts by two cycles: lytic and lysogenic, both of these cycles begin with the phage’s hunt for a host bacteria. (Fun fact: these virus attacks kill almost 40% of the bacteria in the Earth’s oceans every single day.) The mechanism of bacterial transduction occurs by phage inserting its DNA into the bacteria by latching onto the bacteria. The phages use these bacteria as replicating mediums or factories. The bacteria try to resist but fail as they lack the required defence mechanism to resist these attacks. Sometimes, bacterias survive these attacks and in doing so activate their most effective defence mechanism. They save a part of the virus’s genetic code in their DNA archive called as CRISPR. When the virus attacks again an RNA copy of the virus stored in this DNA archive is made with the help of a secret weapon – a protein called Cas9. This protein is responsible for scanning the bacterium and comparing every bit of its DNA to the sample from the archive. When the match is made, the protein gets activated and cuts out the affected DNA thus making it useless. Thereby, it protects the bacterium against the phage attack. Cas9 is known to be extremely precise in its functioning – almost like a DNA surgeon.

 

The eventual discovery that the CRISPR system is programmable has lead to a giant leap in the field of genetics. A copy of the DNA meant to modify is fed into the system and then (the system) is placed in a living cell. CRISPR tracks the changes to be made and makes them by itself. CRISPR can also be used to edit live cells (micro-organisms, animals, plants and humans) making it comparatively easier and efficient to switch on and off and to target and study particular sequences. CRIPSR, even with its fascinating abilities and tools is still a first generation tool open for much further advancement in the future.

Editing a Gene Using CRISPR/CAS9 (Image Source: Nature News, Business Insider)

In 2015, CRISPR was used to snip out HIV cells from the infected living cells of an HIV-positive patient. Later a larger project was undertaken with rats which had the HIV virus in all of their body cells. Studies showed that by simply inserting CRISPR into the tails of these rats it was possible to rid them of more than 50 percent of the HIV DNA in their body cells thus theorizing that in a few years CRISPR might be able to treat HIV and other retroviruses's (viruses that hide in the DNA) related diseases like herpes.

 

Cancer occurs when a cell refuses to die and keeps multiplying while concealing itself from the immune system. CRISPR gives us the ability to edit the immune cells in the victim and make them better cancer hunters. Cure for cancer in a few years may simply mean getting a few injections of a few cells of your own body.

 

Year 2016, marked the signs of approval for human studies in regards to treating cancer with the help of CRISPR. While in August 2016, Chinese scientists announced that they would attempt to cure lung cancer with the help of CRISPR. Thousands of genetic diseases (colour blindness, haemophilia, Huntington’s disease) which range from being harmless, annoying, deadly to ones which have caused suffering for ages could possibly be cured with the help of CRISPR. More than 3000 diseases are caused by an incorrect letter in our DNA. These can be fixed by the change of a single letter in the genetic code thus fixing the disease in the cell and opening the possibility of curing thousands of diseases. Though, these corrections have the downside of being limited to one individual and thus dying out with them except if used on reproductive cells or on very early embryos.

 

CRISPR has been theorized to give rise to so much more – one of which is designer babies. Isn’t the possibility of creating the baby of your imagination fascinating? This possibility could lead to gradual but irreversible changes to the human gene pool. The means to edit the gene pool are already in hand. In 2015 and 2016, Chinese scientists experimented with human embryos and were partially successful in their second attempt. 

Adam Nash, world's first known designer baby  (Image Source: BBC News) 

No matter what one’s opinion is on genetics and genetic engineering – genetic engineering is a concept likely to affect everyone regardless if the individual is directly linked to it or not. The changes that will be made to the human genome will be passed on from generation to generation slowly but surely modifying the human gene pool. The first genetic babies won’t be designed in hopes of fun, creativity or desire but simply to eradicate existing genetic diseases running in the family. As time goes on, the argument will be reversed to how not using the effective and sure methods of genetic engineering will condemn children and future generations to the lifelong suffering that could be prevented by simple methods. It is hypothesized that the birth of the first genetic baby will lead to the eventual fueling of our society’s unprecedented search for perfection and the eventual misuse of the technology to eradicate any and every trait we see as imperfection and will never cease given the acceptance of genetic modification and more understanding of our genetic code. It won’t be long before we start picking the traits we desire in our offspring. These modifications when compiled with millions of others could lead to a grey area in human history with millions of variations and customizations in the offspring we desire making genetic engineered humans the new standard.

        

These studies and such acceptance could possibly solve the bane of our existence – death. Like many plots in films, books and creative pieces in pop culture – what if we could finally curb the inescapable ruin we call aging? Old age (age-related causes) is the cited cause of death of 100,00 of the 150,000 people who die each day across the globe. As per science right now age-related deaths are caused by the accumulation of damage to our cells like DNA breaks and the mechanism responsible for fixing this damage wears off over time. The goal will be to target the genes related to aging with the help of gene therapy and genetic engineering to slow down or even reverse the aging process completely. We know that in nature, there are animals that are immune to aging – like lobsters Planarian and Turritopsis nutricula (immortal jellyfish) – why not do the same for ourselves? A few scientists hypothesize that biological aging won’t be a thing in the future. It’s not that we couldn’t die – we would, but not as quickly as we do now even though the studies in these aspects are in their infancy. Many scientists are skeptical about the end of aging. The challenges are enormous but it is conceivable that our generation might be the first to benefit from anti-ageing therapy given appropriate funding for research.

 

It could be made much easier to solve many of today’s existing problems – like modifying our body to process high fat food thus eradicating obesity and related problems, or mechanism to fight off deadly diseases with the help of a modified immune system, which has a library of potential threats to our body thus making us immune to most of the diseases that haunt us today. Humans, in the future, could be engineered for specific needs in the society or for life in space and space travel thus making us better adaptable to our environments.

 

Even with this beautiful picture the field of genetic engineering paints for us we need to consider its benefits against the ethical and social dilemmas it raises such as will we eventually live strictly dictated by our roles defined for us prior to our birth; will we relinquish the rights we enjoy today: the freedom to do what we want, dress and speak as we please, and mostly live to our own terms; will our society be such that it will only abide by the fallacy we come to know as perfection and what about imperfection; and how will our society function in such diversity and how much of our life will be standardized.

 

It is a fact that the routine we follow today is far different from that we did decades ago. No one in the 1800s would have ever dreamed of airplanes, cars, the Internet and the skyscrapers. In a world where your life revolved around your duties and power within your city or estate how wildly baffling would it be to consider touching the stars? And a millennium from now, when mankind, in all probability, won’t look as it does now, won't behave as it does now, but most of all, won’t be confined to one planet or universe even how baffling would it be to believe that the civilization we arose from started with our ancestors evolving from apes and then moving across from being cave men to medieval ages to dark ages to wars that almost destroyed humanity to a million different aspects that led man to be the man today. As different is our present life from the early 11th century so will be our future from our today.

 

In our present, tests for pregnant women are a must, something that wasn’t a norm a few decades ago. In many countries, Downs syndrome or Trisomy 21 is an example of a genetic defect which when detected leads to a significantly high ratio of detected pregnancies being terminated. Though the decision to terminate the pregnancy is personal, aren’t we pre-selecting humans as of now based on their medical conditions? Won't we use such examples to impact choices we make related to such matters in the future? As beautiful as CRISPR is, it is to be understood that CRISPR is in its inception. It is susceptible to many errors. Scientists are still trying to learn and get to know the techniques and operations of the tool. Wrong edits still happen as well as unknown errors that occur in the DNA and go unnoticed. The gene edits may cure diseases and disable certain genes and thus achieve the desired result but they can also go wrong and trigger unwanted changes. If our gene pool was an iceberg; it is to be understood that till date, we have just uncovered and studied a minor portion of the top of the surface. We, for a fact, do not know much about the complexity involved in our genes to be able to confidently go around making changes which may have unpredictable consequences. We still need to work on our accuracy and monitor the changes, if such changes were to be made in the future.

Down Syndrome Patient (Image Source: U.S. National Library of Medicine)

What about the negatives surrounding genetic engineering? What would happen if these techniques were to fall in the wrong hands? Could this technique help the wrong people in power cement their rule forever? What would be its effect on terrorism and military warfare? Would this lead to the eventual downfall of our civilization?

 

Banning genetic engineering, because of ethical concerns, may not be the right move as it would thrust the field of science into eventual darkness and uncertainty surrounded by restrictions, rules, and jurisdiction that we may not be comfortable with. Our only choice is to ensure that our future research is guided by proper reason, judgment, conceptualization, oversight, and transparency.

 

As uncomfortable as this topic is, genetic engineering could be the next step in human evolution. We could end diseases, increase life expectancy by centuries, move to the stars, discover other life forms and forge ourselves as an even more intelligent species. No matter what our opinions are, genetic engineering and the world surrounding it is coming soon.

 


 

Works Cited

 

What is CRISPR-Cas9? (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-crispr-cas9.

 

How Gene Editing Could Ruin Human Evolution. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://time.com/4626571/crispr-gene-modification-evolution/.

 

What is CRISPR and what does it mean for genetics? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://cosmosmagazine.com/biology/what-crispr-and-what-does-it-mean-genetics.

 

Mendel Genetic Laws. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.hobart.k12.in.us/jkousen/Biology/mendel.htm.

 

What is DNA? (n.d.). Retrieved from

https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/basics/dna.

 

Three-Parent IVF: Gene Replacement for the Prevention of Inherited Mitochondrial Diseases. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4005382/.

 

CRISPR Eliminates HIV in Live Animals. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.genengnews.com/gen-news-highlights/crispr-eliminates-hiv-in-live-animals/81254287.

 

CRISPR gene-editing tested in a person for the first time. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/news/crispr-gene-editing-tested-in-a-person-for-the-first-time-1.20988.

 

Designer babies: an ethical horror waiting to happen? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jan/08/designer-babies-ethical-horror-waiting-to-happen.

 

Designer Babies Pros and Cons. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.futureforall.org/bioengineering/designer-babies.html.

 

Oil Eating Bacteria. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://scienceblogs.com/oscillator/2010/06/08/oil-eating-bacteria/.

 

The Flavr Savr Tomato, an Early Example of RNAi Technology. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://hortsci.ashspublications.org/content/43/3/962.full.

 

Chromosome 21. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/chromosome/21.