The Brave New World of CRISPR

Can you imagine an elephant sanctuary in Siberia?  Wheat that is practically immune to mildew?  Microbes that eat plastic?

These may now be possible, thanks to a new tool called CRISPR-Cas9 (or CRISPR for short) that gives us the ability to literally rewrite genetic code for just about anything on our planet that has DNA.  So, as one example,  we could take genes from the extinct woolly mammoth and give them to elephants, then put them in Siberia, far away from poachers.  Or maybe even bring back the woolly mammoths themselves.

The details get pretty technical.  Basically, the CRISPR molecule is programmed to search for a specific genetic sequence, cut the targeted sequence with what can best be described as molecular scissors, and patch in a different sequence.

The possibilities are endless… as are the ethical issues.  The Director of National Intelligence James Clapper considers this a weapon of mass destruction.   Scientists themselves are working to provide guidance for this type of research.  And it’s a hot topic; my CRISPR google got “About 4,390,000 results”.  I first read about it in “The Gene Machine”, Time magazine’s cover story of July 4, 2016 (although that article is not available on the Internet), and I’m sure there will be a lot more to come.

Once again, science is giving us a powerful tool.  I just hope we use it wisely.

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