Have you heard of CRISPR? No it’s not a breakfast cereal… It’s a fast, accurate, and cheap means of changing DNA. It stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.
If you haven’t heard of it, then you need to: this is a HUGE deal.
There is a protein in bacteria called Cas9 which helps defend against viral attacks. (Yes, bacteria get viruses, too!) The bacterial DNA can take the viral DNA and store it in a special place (CRISPR). When the virus attacks a second time, RNA loads Cas9 with the viral DNA. The loaded Cas9 scans the bacteria’s DNA to find the new viral DNA that has infiltrated it, and it cuts it out – a little like a DNA antibody. Personified, that means the cell says, “I’ve seen this change before, it’s a mistake, I need to replace the change with the original information.” Then it sends a message to the Cas9 protein with the bad DNA sequence to modify, and off we go.
The Cas9 protein can be taken out of bacteria, be given a DNA sequence from any kind of living thing, be injected into any other living thing, and it will make changes in that organism based on the information it was “programmed” with.
Got that? You give Cas9 a DNA sequence you want to modify, inject it into an organism, and it will make the changes. It is fast, it is accurate, and it is CHEAP.
Okay, this is a bit of an oversimplification. There’s more to it, and no you can’t just walk into the right lab and get a shot that will make you grow wings… yet.
There are obvious benefits to this kind of procedure. CRISPR might provide us with a cure for cancer, AIDS, any number of genetic diseases, and could help us generally keep healthy (like by increasing our metabolism or improving our eyesight). Once it is really nailed down, it is very likely that a couple of $12 shots at the minute clinic will be able to get rid of your asthma, or Alzheimer’s, or cerebral palsy… forever.
But… With great power comes great responsibility.
Unfortunately, the 21st century West is not very responsible. Where might CRISPR go wrong?
Well, what color eyes would you like your child to have? Should we bump up his IQ while we’re at it? Hey, you’re an athlete, maybe we can give him long legs and enhanced muscular growth as well, so he will be sure to be athletic too. Just an extra $300, please. Oh, you’d like him to have Shiva arms and a third eye, because you’re into that kind of thing right now? You’ll have to go down the hall for that.
Anti-aging cream? Psh. Take the right injection, and your body will actually start DE-AGING. As long as you don’t get hit by a truck or something, you’re good to go for another hundred years… a thousand years… indefinitely, perhaps. Or at least we will try.
Let’s say you’re running a poor nation and, well, need things to go more “smoothly.” So you put something in the water to make all your citizens have a defect that only you can provide the fix for. And you will only provide it to a person if his taxes are paid on time, he doesn’t have too many children, and he votes for you again. (This could be done now, but not with nearly the same ease and dramatic effects.) Meanwhile, you are pumping your soldiers and police full of testosterone 2.0…
And once such genetically modified people reproduce (whether they have been helped to be healthy or have been “upgraded” or “downgraded” somehow), those screwed up genes get passed along. At that point, there’s no stopping it. And we have no idea what that will actually mean.
Here’s a video helpful for understanding more:
This technology is developing very quickly. The Church needs to get ready with a response, ASAP. Where is the line for modification, and why? If life is a good thing and death is to be avoided, is anti-aging wrong? What is to be done in terms of people who have already changed themselves by addition – how far does the obligation extend to have such a thing undone? Is this technology really worth the risk of irreversible changes to the gene pool which we don’t even know the danger of? Could there be an obligation to use this technology to prevent certain kinds of diseases? These are the kinds of questions we have to begin asking.
Get ready. It’s coming. And once it comes, it is here to stay.
Post by: Eamonn Clark
Main image: Cas9 in the Apo form
Main image source (modified): By Ben.lafrance – Template:Own rendition of the crystal structure solved by M Jinek et al, published in Science 2014, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37224108