CRISPR - adventures with the human genome - 03

Have you heard of CRISPR?

It stands for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats". It's a tool, specifically a "family of DNA sequences", used to modify gene function and alter DNA sequences more easily than previous technologies. Cas9 is the most common enzyme referenced when CRISPR is brought up in popular usage, and is used to "cut foreign DNA" from a desired sequence. CRISPR became widely popular in late 2017 / early 2018 after a paper published by researchers from the University of Tokyo showed CRISPR in action for the first time.

It's so easy to do that a "biohacker" CEO of a biotech company injected himself with a CRISPR-Cas9 on a live feed. You can get an at-home CRISPR kit to edit the genes of a bacteria for less than 200 USD.

I'm deliberately writing in a mild tone but otherwise can't overstate how astounding this is. And this is before things really went wild.

In late 2018, just around a year since CRISPR came out in that paper, a Chinese scientists implanted edited embryos to make a pair of twins resistant to HIV. There are ethical considerations here around both consent and the inability to project far enough in advance the kind of risks they're introducing both to the twins and to the greater ecosystem, but perhaps the most important detail is that the edits happened at the embryo level.

A CRISPR edited gene in a human body will alter the genome function but that body will not pass down those edits. An edited gene in the embryo makes the edit persistent. This means that those twins will pass down their HIV-resistance to their children, if they have any.

The thing is that even though we've mapped the human genome, we're still uncovering how everything relates to everything else. When the scientists made those changes, they brought it up as something to fight disease and that making edits for vanity, from athleticism to intelligence, should be forbidden. But that's exactly what happened; these HIV resistant babies might have a genetic edge in intelligence.

That was announced just a few months after the implantation. And a few months after that? The discover that, for reasons we don't yet know, although very likely related to the fact that the edit deals with immune function, humans with HIV-resistance as a mutation have a 21% higher aggregated death rate span.

For all of their proclaimed good intentions the scientists made a mistake in springing this edit on the scientific community - we don't know what we don't know, but we're sure going to find out.

Side note, Life in Plastic has had an update.

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