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Where it All Started
Gene editing in a precise manner in a large scale has been the target for biotechnologists since long. Today, since its year 2000 publication the CRISPR-Cas9 system has become key to extremely precise gene editing systems. However, the discovery of the same comes from a very basic natural question that the scientists asked.
"How do Bacterias keep themselves safe ?"
Viruses that reproduce by invading bacterias are the most prevalent form of organic beings. We, as humans, having billions of cells can imagine having a complicated immune system. But, single cell organisms like bacterias ? How do they keep themselves safe from the constant bombarding of viruses and keep on living ?
The answer is astonishing. Bacterias, within their single cell systems have developed an adaptive immune system - one that has memory!
CRISPR” (pronounced “crisper”) stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which are the hallmark of a bacterial defense system that forms the basis for CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology.
In case you have no idea what that means, Let me oversimplify it for you. Simply stating, viruses attack bacterias by integrating their viral genome into the baterial DNA and keep replicating with the Bacterial DNA as it replicates. What Bacterias do in response is that they store the memory of previously attacking viral DNA in the form of RNA with same sequence. Then the rest of the magic is done by the Cas-9 protein. Whenever in future, a virus with similar sequence attacks it goes and cuts and disables the viral DNA using the help of the guiding RNA strand.
So, How is It Going to Help Us ?
The fact that CRISPR-Cas9 system is extremely specific and efficient holdd the key to our attention. The guiding RNA strand gives us the opportunity to codify any sequence we want. In fact, it is almost like a "word search in a document" facility. The human genome is over 3 Billion base pairs long.
But, with CRISPR-Cas9 we can directly target any specific region of the genome. We can use it to duplicate specific regions, cure cancer causing lethal point mutations, knock down over-expressing harmful genes and what not. Here is a beautiful video depiction of the amazing capabilities of the system by Nature Methods.
The CRISPR kit is completely open source and available to buy online. That's a beautiful gesture from the scientists who first delivered the method. But, there are concerns we need to worry about.
For more in depth discussion, this World Science Festival discussion is the best one for people from all circles.
Ethical Issues: Where is the Limit ?
Certainly it all sounds extremely interesting and exciting. In fact, diseases which can be cured by gene modifications including HIV (yes, it is possible to have an HIV resistant mutation in human genome. Very very few lucky person have it). But, do we stop there ? Already, from various communities Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) are being questioned. But, with CRISPR-Cas9 it is a whole new different level. Should we start treating every human embroys with routine Gene Editing to cure potential diseases ? If so, then why not try to start enhancing Human Beings to have supernatural attributes ? (Yes, Mutants are a real possibility now ! In fact, we have already seen mutant mice who can glow in the dark thanks to insertion of a specific gene from Jelly Fishes). If we want to put a bar on what is allowed and what not , then where should the line be drawn ? There are thousands of ethical and social questions that arise circumscribing the whole technology. It is essential for everybody to be aware of what's coming.
So, do you want to evolve from Homo sapiens to some higher version of humanity ? Or, would you rather play it safe and avoid tinkering with nature's own code of life ? Tell us in the comments.
Let us know what kind of content you would like to see more. See ya peeps. Until the next post.