CRISPR

Easy New Gene Editing Technique CRISPR Conjures Fears of a Brave New World

Is it immoral to slow progress toward curing diseases and creating more environmentally benign products?

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CRISPediting
Stanford

Three years ago, researchers discovered a super-precise and simple gene editing technique based on how bacteria protect themselves from being infected by viruses. The technique is called CRISPR-Cas9. CRISPR stands for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats" that recognize and enable the destruction of viruses that attack a bacterium. Cas9 is an enzyme that cuts gene sequences. CRISPR has now been modified in ways that enable researchers to make very precise changes in the genomes of any cells in any organism. The technique is also much easier and cheaper to use than earlier gene-editing technologies.

Earlier this year, a self-selected committee of prominent researchers issued a letter in Science calling for a broad public discussion of the implications of this powerful new technology. They especially urged that steps be taken to…

…Strongly discourage, even in those countries with lax jurisdictions where it might be permitted, any attempts at germline genome modification for clinical application in humans, while societal, environmental, and ethical implications of such activity are discussed among scientific and governmental organizations.

To the consternation of some, Chinese researchers published a study a little over a month later in which they reported their results from trying to use CRISPR to correct the genetic defect that causes the blood disorder beta-thalassemia in human embryos.

Wired has just published a fascinating article, "Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up," that details how CRISPR was discovered and explores some of its potential uses. Wired reports:

Using the three-year-old technique, researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS. Agronomists have rendered wheat invulnerable to killer fungi like powdery mildew, hinting at engineered staple crops that can feed a population of 9 billion on an ever-warmer planet. Bioengineers have used Crispr to alter the DNA of yeast so that it consumes plant matter and excretes ethanol, promising an end to reliance on petrochemicals. Startups devoted to Crispr have launched. International pharmaceutical and agricultural companies have spun up Crispr R&D. Two of the most powerful universities in the US are engaged in a vicious war over the basic patent. Depending on what kind of person you are, Crispr makes you see a gleaming world of the future, a Nobel medallion, or dollar signs.

Why not all three? Wired continues:

The technique is revolutionary, and like all revolutions, it's perilous. … It could at last allow genetics researchers to conjure everything anyone has ever worried they would—designer babies, invasive mutants, species-specific bioweapons, and a dozen other apocalyptic sci-fi tropes.

Doubtless CRISPR, like any technology, can (and will be) abused. As noted by Wired, one worry is that CRISPR might used to create bioweapons. But the faster exploration and development of the technology will also enable researchers to rapidly devise counter-measures to weaponized bacteria and viruses. Ultimately, going slow out of fear of misuse would deny suffering people access to cures and to more environmentally benign products of all sorts. If using refined and effective CRISPR gene-editing techniques to cure disease, correct defective genes or create more productive crops is moral, then it is immoral to slow progress toward achieving those goals.

See also my Reason TV colleague Zach Weissmueller's intriguing Q&A with Cambrian Genomics' Austen Heinz: 3-D Printing DNA: Hacking Life's Code and Creating New Organisms below.

"To think that we can't make organisms that aren't more efficient than existing, I don't think is correct," says Austen Heinz, founder of the biotech startup Cambrian Genomics. "Because nature doesn't have DNA laser printers, and we do."

Reason TV's Zach Weissmueller sat down with Heinz to discuss the ramifications of a technology that dramatically brings down the cost of sequencing and assembling DNA, suddenly making the ability for consumers to create their own organisms an economic reality. Heinz partnered with a company to crowdfund a "glowing plant," which led to a subsequent ban on GMO-related projects on Kickstarter, and he expresses concern with the lagging regulatory structure governing biotech development. But Heinz is undeterred by regulatory and cultural obstacles and foresees a future where consumers can affordably leverage his technology to fix errors in their own DNA or even design their own creatures in the same way that 3-D printing companies like MakerBot allow for custom models.

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  1. Let’s just cut to the chase here. When do I get my army of genetically altered super men riding Tyrannosaurus’?

    1. No need to wait.

      Just visit the Creation Museum in Kentucky.

  2. Leave Gene alone.

  3. When will I be able to modify genes so I can fly?

    1. *hands Eric certificate for first private pilot lesson*
      There you go bud.

      1. *holds Eric’s beer so he can get in the plane*

        1. You know, I went to a college that offered pilot training, and that’s way more common and accurate than you would believe. We had a joke amongst the engineering nerds that “pilot math” was figuring out when to stop drinking in order to be sober enough for their check ride. Many of those pilots are probably now commercial airline pilots. Think about that next time you get a plane.

      2. *hands Eric a packet of weed*

    2. I would imagine you’d have to modify your genome to express dormant traits that would allow for the growth of wings and flight muscles. Were any of your ancestors bats?

      1. I think they are inserting genes from other organisms. Still, the wing span and energy requirements for human flight are staggering I’m sure.

          1. Ah! That’s a pretty creepy image.

            1. You’re telling me.

              I was just grappling around Gotham, being a cool guy, and I grapple over to the top of a building and this happens

              1. I hate it when that happens.

  4. I suspect this will void our warranties, not to mention our EULA..

  5. Turns out the new york times doesn’t practice what they preach.

    I wonder how reason would stack up.

  6. It will all be fun and games until some nut creates another ManBearPig.

    1. Poor Patrick Duffy.

      1. Or Florida creates an army of giant pythons and conquers and subjugates Georgia with it.

        1. Dammit John, the element of surprise was my greatest asset!

        2. They’ll just get run over in ATL rush-hour traffic.

        3. They’ll be killed by all the rattle snakes around the lake blackshear area.

          1. I’ve crossed the pythons with king snakes. Hahaha!

            1. I’m sure Mr. Lizard would approve

        4. Thought Florida already did that…

  7. I just have one question: will I finally be able to give myself a healing factor, retractable bone claws, and lace my bones with adamantium? Snikitty snikt!

  8. This will be world changing. Many of the applications are also rather inexpensive and many groups aim to offer their research for free. So the idea of scheming oligarchs keeping the hoi polloi down by limiting access to these types of therapies is just wrong.

    Which also means that any *ethical discussions* are essentially moot. People are going to use these therapies ASAP.

    Add in the increasing move towards massive decentralization and most models of government and politics as a whole become not only outdated by unworkable.

    When Bob can manufacture whole products at home. Print pharmaceuticals and fun drugs. Manufacture his own CRISPR cures on his kitchen counter who will care what popular opinion is? Who will listen to some braying politico?

    IMO, a libertarianism society will not come to be through traditional political methods but technological innovation. It’s almost here. 3D printing, home power generation and waste treatment. Mesh networks. Etc.

    1. Nuh uh, I saw Elysium, I know how this all turns out.

      1. That movie angered me. It ignores just about every example of revolutionary technology in history. Gah!

        1. Watch this. You will feel better.

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6AndrSAkaSw

          You’re welcome.

    2. IMO, a libertarianism society will not come to be through traditional political methods but technological innovation. It’s almost here. 3D printing, home power generation and waste treatment. Mesh networks. Etc.

      Would you say we are having a kind of moment?

      1. Could be 🙂

        I really think that soon, within the next decade, it will be apparent how destructive and restrictive government is. It’s already happening- ex. law enforcement employees beating the crap out of people constantly.

        When people can provide for most or their needs at home arguments for giant centralized systems and infrastructures will fall flat.

        A lot of government employees will have some ‘splaining to do. All the information will get out. Expert systems will be able to construct whole careers of unethical behavior from the data out there. Plus the actual *secret* documentation.

        Once reputation markets start in earnest many of these people are going to be fucked.

        1. I hope you’re right. I tend to be more pessimistic, not for any particular reason.

          1. not for any particular reason

            I think “it comes with the territory” LITERALLY fits in your case, amrite, Florida Man? I know all that sun, humidity and blue hair makes me more pessimistic.

            1. Maybe that’s it. Living among the nearly dead can be hard on the soul.

  9. It seems so fucking ridiculous to figure out a way to stop crippled babies from seeing Jesus in their real god-given form. But, then again, if my kid can be born with homo or Republican genes it’d probably only cost a couple of hundred to change that shit around, right? Hell, I see gene software in everyone’s future, man. Get the babe preggo, draw some blood after a couple of days, and play baby creator. Fuck god.

    1. They will never find the homo gene because it doesn’t exist. If there is a way to get rid of real disabilities, then they should do it. But it won’t be the SOCONs objecting. It will be the disability advocates claiming that you are trying to destroy their unique culture. You can already see this happening in the deaf community. We are pretty close to ending deafness altogether and the deaf professional victim community is none too happy about it.

      1. Wait, there are people fighting to stay deaf? Do you have a link?

        1. It’s more than that. It’s deaf parents fighting to keep their kids deaf because “deaf culture”.

            1. It is horrible. The Washington Post had a fawning profile of a deaf lesbian couple who were seeing out a deaf sperm donor so their child would be born deaf. It is some really twisted shit.

            2. Here is an article from the NYT about the larger phenomenon.

              http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12……html?_r=0

            3. That is so sad.

              Yep. Disgusting, but it’s their choice.

        2. What?

          /obligatory

      2. They will never find the homo gene because it doesn’t exist.

        If you think being gay is a choice, go suck a dick.

        The gay people I’ve known over the years all said they knew they were gay at an early age. It wasn’t a choice for them. If it’s not a choice, then maybe it is genetic.

        1. Sure. Lots of otherwise straight people have. I wouldn’t want to do it. But I wouldn’t want to do a lot of things.

          To say there is a homo gene is to rob gays of their humanity and moral agency. It just says they are genetic freaks and outliers.

          Beyond that, no gene has ever been found. And they keep doing twin studies and finding no genetic link. Maybe those studies are flawed. But, until I see someone show me proof otherwise, I am not buying it.

          1. The fact that no gene has been found isn’t proof that it doesn’t exist. Some things take a while to find. I’m not asserting anything. Just saying that a lack of proof isn’t proof. Could be that there is no gene, or maybe it exists and just hasn’t been found yet. Either way, I don’t believe it is a choice, and that suggests that is may be genetic.

            1. The fact that no gene has been found isn’t proof that it doesn’t exist.

              True but it is sure a good reason not to assume one exists. If they find one, I will believe it. But until then, I see no reason to assume there is.

              Either way, I don’t believe it is a choice, and that suggests that is may be genetic.

              If it is not a choice, then how is anything a choice? You can’t choose any of the things you find desirable. You just do. Do you choose to find that chocolate tastes good or a certain kind of music is pleasurable to listen to while others who don’t like chocolate or that music choose not to? No. They just appeal to you. Who you find sexually attractive is the same way.

              1. Who you find sexually attractive is the same way.

                I disagree. I don’t think it’s that kind of a preference.

                1. I don’t see how there is anything special about your sexual desires. They are desires just like others.

            2. Since there has been lots of searching with no luck, my guess is that it is imprinting, something that is very common in nature. Another possibility is epigenetic.

          2. To say there is a homo gene is to rob gays of their humanity and moral agency.

            Wait, fucking what?

            1. Yes. It says they don’t choose to do the things they do, they are compelled like some animal. That being gay is like a tiger hunting deer. It is just what they do. If there is such a thing as a “gay gene”, then a gay person having sex is no different than a tiger at the zoo eating its keeper. It is just what they do, be it go tiger or go gay on your ass. That is utterly demeaning to gays.

              1. I don’t see how it is demeaning. It simply means they were born that way. That they don’t choose their sexuality anymore than someone chooses the color of their skin. Is it demeaning to blacks that their skin color is genetic? I

                1. Is it demeaning to straight people?

              2. I think your take on genetics might be a little too black and white, John. Look at the genetics on something less morally freighted, like lactase persistence. Northern Europeans have much higher rates of it and can drink milk without discomfort while in say East Asia the trait is mostly absent. Even with the lactase persistence trait someone may still have discomfort on drinking milk because of other confounding traits. And people without lactase persistence may still consume dairy products for a variety of reasons.

                Biological traits needn’t be a strict binary and biological preferences don’t “rob someone of their agency”. I could eat a fist full of pralines right now. I’m allergic, but I love the way they taste, and as an adult with agency I have to balance my enjoyment of eating them with the unpleasantness that follows.

                1. 23andme told me I am likely to have plenty of lactase as an adult (correct) thanks to my superior french genetics.

                  23andme has not found my gay gene, yet.

                2. Sure Jesse. But if they are not bianary, then they don’t mean anything. If you can still choose to act on them, then you can’t say you can’t help but be what you are.

              3. That’s silly. It’s demeaning only if your presuppose that homosexual behavior is somehow deeply destructive and “unnatural” and therefore no sane or proper person would engage in it voluntarily.

                We assign humanity and agency to all sorts of our fellow humans who have genetic differences from us that may predispose them to a behavior (by controlling attraction, or by affecting taste buds, or by affecting their sun sensitivity). Your conclusion doesn’t follow absent your prior judgement and self-imposed morality.

                1. That’s silly. It’s demeaning only if your presuppose that homosexual behavior is somehow deeply destructive and “unnatural” and therefore no sane or proper person would engage in it voluntarily.

                  That is completely untrue. What is demeaning is that the person is deprived of their agency. It doesn’t matter if the act is good or bad. You are dehumanized either way.

                  It is dehumanizing to say “all Asian people are good at math because of their genes”. It is a very good thing to be good at math, but saying Asians who are are just that way because they are some genetic outlier is to deprive them of their agency. Same thing here.

              4. Do people choose to be straight?

                1. Sure they do Frank. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be people who for short periods become homosexuals due to circumstances or culture.

                  The Spartans are a good example. When they were young, they were gay as hell. Then they got older and due to cultural demands, became straight. Yeah, people choose their actions.

                  1. John, ever since I can remember feeling sexual attraction, I’ve felt sexual attraction for both sexes. I never chose to feel attracted to both sexes–that’s simply how it was from the beginning.

                    1. John is as usual clueless on the subject he’s talking about, and tries to compensate with psychobabble.

                      Lesbianism follows Mendelian inheritance patterns while male homosexuality does not. BOTH ARE BIOLOGICAL. Epigenetics and other discoveries have taken us beyond a need for a ‘homo gene’.

          3. I think John is probably right here, though I won’t say categorically that such a gene does not exist.

            The popularized summaries I have seen say that sexual orientation is most likely due to some form of imprinting that happens very early in life – too early for a child to make a genuine choice, but probably not the result of genetics.

        2. If it is “genetic” how do you explain bisexuals and the variations in acceptance of homosexuality in different cultures? Where all of the Spartans, who saw no issue with pederasty, genetically gay? That is one hell of a genetic coincidence if they were.

          1. Well, it does explain why there are no more Spartans…

      3. I think, if John had said this, the reaction he’s getting would be quite different–

        They will never find the defective gene or genes that cause homosexuality because it/they don’t exist. If there is a way to get rid of real disabilities, then they should do it. But it won’t be the SOCONs objecting. It will be the disability advocates claiming that you are trying to destroy their unique culture. You can already see this happening in the deaf community. We are pretty close to ending deafness altogether and the deaf professional victim community is none too happy about it.

        Because you have contemplated that, right? That if there is a gene or a gene complex or a form of gene expression that leads to homosexuality this makes it curable, right? And that if it’s curable it will be cured?

        John is saying that can’t happen.

        The rest of you are saying that it can. Oh, John’s ‘agency’ argument is bullshit, but what the rest of you seem to be saying is that the inevitable genetic cure for homosexuality, should it be found, is fine by you.

        1. I don’t see how saying you don’t have a choice is not by definition robbing you of your agency. How could it not be.

          And the other impact of saying homosexuality is inborn is that every other sexual preference must be inborn as well. That means pedophiles cannot help themselves and should not be treated as criminals. Maybe lunatics but certainly not criminals. I don’t think people will find saying that quite as comforting as saying gays can’t help but be gay.

          1. I don’t think anyone’s ever seriously argued that a ‘gay gene’ exists.

            It’s typically understood that homosexuality forms in some people during fetal development (around the 2nd trimester) when aspects of the brain influencing sexual attraction are developing. If a male fetus is exposed to excess estrogen for whatever reason during this developmental window, he may become a gay adult; if a female fetus is exposed to excess testosterone, she may become a lesbian adult. Gender hormone imbalances like this can occur if the pregnant mother is undergoing severe stress.

            So homosexuality likely isn’t very genetic, but that doesn’t mean it’s a free-willed choice either.

          2. And the other impact of saying homosexuality is inborn is that every other sexual preference must be inborn as well.

            That’s not how logic works.

  10. I imagine a future arms race that will put thousands of biological weapons in the hands of numerous adversaries, and decades of mutual antagonism will foster a regime of enforced global quietude. Some nations will have them, and other nations will want them, and many nations will cooperate to prevent certain nations from getting them.

    And then some future schmuck will all but hand the keys to a personal arsenal of such weapons to a nation of nihilists and will upset the entire balance of power in the region, with international implications.

    1. You should read some Ramez Naam (Nexus series).

      1. The White Plague

  11. Real velociraptors are too small. Movie velociraptors are too big and scaley.
    I want them in between.

    1. +1 Goldilocks

    2. Again, I’m sure Mr. Lizard approves. But I’ll let him speak for hisself.

  12. About 25 years ago, I remember watching a green propaganda cartoon called Captain Planet. I’ve long felt it was time for a parody. Introducing: Captain Profit

    Opening narration: Our world is in peril. Hayek, the spirit of the dollar, can no longer stand the terrible destruction plaguing our markets. He gives five magic monocles to five special economists. From Harlem, Sowell with the power of cash. From Brooklyn, Friedman with the power of trade. From the Soviet Union, Rand with the power of greed. From the Bronx, Rothbard with the power of banks and from Connecticut, Schiff with the power of gold. With the five powers combined they summon capitalism’s greatest champion – CAPTAIN PROFIT!

    This parody [not from Funny or Die] is decent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNxeKRyq8o4

  13. Using the three-year-old technique, researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS. Agronomists have rendered wheat invulnerable to killer fungi like powdery mildew, hinting at engineered staple crops that can feed a population of 9 billion on an ever-warmer planet. Bioengineers have used Crispr to alter the DNA of yeast so that it consumes plant matter and excretes ethanol, promising an end to reliance on petrochemicals.

    Obviously we must attack Monsanto and the evul corporashuns who want to destroy Gaia.

    /anti-GMO activist mode

  14. I can’t wait until the potheads get a hold of this!

  15. Bioengineers have used Crispr to alter the DNA of yeast so that it consumes plant matter and excretes ethanol

    Uh, that’s what yeast does naturally.
    /homebrewer

  16. …Strongly discourage, even in those countries with lax jurisdictions where it might be permitted, any attempts at germline genome modification for clinical application in humans, while societal, environmental, and ethical implications of such activity are discussed among scientific and governmental organizations.

    A waste of fucking time that will only delay meaningful life-saving & life-enhancing genomic treatments.

  17. Yes, CRISPR is a favorite in lab use now. It’s quick, cheap and easy to use. And the new investment of Bill Gates and other investors will also be a great promotion to the development, like I said in my article , this is a revolution, we can’t avoid it. It will come anyway.

  18. That’s one of the contributing reason of expensive drugs. They are supposed to be stopped as soon as possible as drugs are used to save lives. But they are much better than the guys who use other chemicals to make fake drugs.

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