Just What Is CRISPR?

A brief overview of CRISPR.


Recently, gene editing has been in the news quite a bit. DNA technology is a pioneering field at the forefront of modern biological science. The biggest breakthrough by far has been CRISPR. Various media outlets portray the process in different lights. Some hail it as the hero technology of modern medicine. Others as a scary tool to be exploited. This post aims to clarify just what the process involves, so you can decide for yourself if it is a good or bad thing.

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which is a bit of a mouthful and doesn’t say all that much to the average person. Essentially, what it means is that the technology inserts sequences into the DNA which read the same forwards as backwards (like the name ANNA – they’re palindromic).

The reason this is so useful is because it is a way of quickly changing DNA in order to repair or alter a genome. This technology involves proteins which cut the DNA at a known location, and then allows known sequences to be added to fill the gap. This has huge potentials for the future, with scientists able to potentially remove harmful genes and replace them with healthy ones. It is already being linked to possibilities of eradicating a range of genetic illnesses.

Previously, to edit genes scientists would have to genetically modify viruses to contain the gene which they wanted expressing in a creature. Then they would have to infect the creature with the virus and hope that the correct gene got taken up and was useful. This is as time consuming as it sounds, and not terribly efficient when compared to the technology which CRISPR has to offer biotechnology.

Of course, there are problems with this technology. CRISPR has become well known, and therefore there is an increasing concern over ‘backyard CRISPR’ – people who are not in licensed clinics using the technology for various (potentially superficial) uses. The thought that this technology could be used to create ‘perfect’ pets is certainly a worrying one. Just how many steps away from designer babies is that?

Currently, it is illegal for CRISPR technology to be used on sex cells – eggs and sperm. This is because of the ethical issues surrounding the idea of modified genomes being passed down through the generations. Not only is it ‘playing God’, but it is skewing the natural course of evolution, which has shaped species for millennia. On the other hand, surely using the technology available to stop the suffering of future generations is a good thing? The debate surrounding CRISPR is ongoing, and likely no answer will be found for years to come.

CRISPR is certainly a controversial area. Hopefully though, you now have a basic idea of just what the process is, and why there are so many issues surrounding the technology. Please do tell me what your opinion is, either in the comments or over on twitter.

If you’ve got fifteen minutes or so spare, there is a really nifty summary on CRISPR which you can watch here.



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