“In the future, CRISPR will be a common and useful tool to modify plants and agricultural animals and breed new varieties.”
-Caixia Gao, researcher at the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences
Is CRISPR the greatest medical advance since vaccines and antibiotics? Many experts think so. Since its discovery less than a decade ago, CRISPR – an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” – has scientists imagining sweeping uses in all plants and animals…including humans.
So, what exactly is CRISPR? Put simply, it’s a type of genetic engineering that allows scientists to target not only a specific gene, but one part of a specific gene. It’s based on the revelation that many single-celled bacteria have immune systems that contain repeating bits of DNA. Between these identical repetitions are short segments of “spacer DNA,” which match virus DNA from previous exposures, ensuring that the bacterium can recognize and ward off further attacks. Whenever a previously exposed bacterium encounters the virus, the sequence acts like tiny scissors to chop it up.
So, what does this mean? Its uses can range from extending the shelf life of fruit to the human lifespan. It could edit out hereditary diseases such as cystic fibrosis and hemophilia, or attack certain cancers. It could fight bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics. Or it could be used to create drought-resistant wheat or crops that can’t be bothered by pests.
So, what could be bad? What’s unknown is if CRISPR techniques could create new problems because any changes in the genome will be passed down to future generations. Could those tiny alterations cause profound but unknown mutations decades from now? Scientists and regulators alike will be watching closely.
To learn more about CRISPR – including interviews with scientists and videos that provide a basic overview of the technique and a deeper look into the associated controversies – check out the latest issue of Compass.