It has finally happened: thanks to Jennifer Lopez, and the new show C.R.I.S.P.R that she is producing, genome editing may finally cut and paste its way into pop culture and our collective consciousness. The show will apparently frame the the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technique as a high concept tool for bio-terror, with the technique being put to uses ranging from assassination attempts, to the framing of an unborn child for murder; between sniggers shared between myself and fellow lab mates, debating whether injecting someone’s embryo with “CRISPR/Cas9” to change their behaviour or the idea of a “murderer gene” was more ridiculous, I began to wonder what people actually thought, or even knew, about gene editing in our current day and age.
A recent review article published in The New England Journal of Medicine investigated multiple polls that concerned genome editing to inquire into the the American population’s consensus on the practice. Overall, the majority of those polled believe that genome editing should be allowed on living people to aid critical disease, that unborn children should not undergo genome editing regardless of disease, and that genome editing should not occur to influence non-disease related traits. These results were in line with the conclusions made by the Natural Academy of Sciences (NAS) International Summit on Human Gene Editing hosted in December 2015, which also stated that gene editing on humans should be reserved for living individuals, where editing somatic tissues could make a difference in a fatal disease.
However, there is an important issue with these polls worth considering. It has been well documented that the public has little understanding of genetic terms and concepts, and naturally, like much scientific dialogue, the gene editing debate was heavily simplified even before polling began. Even considering these simplifications, only 31% of people who eagerly voiced their opinion said that they had previously read about or listened to discussions on genome editing. This evident lack of knowledge and understanding, paired with a willingness to debate and form a consensus on this topic led me to a very concerning thought: could Jenny from the block, and a show like C.R.I.S.P.R, untowardly influence public opinion, and by extension the laws concerning genome editing?
Let’s think about it this way: scientific writing is dry, filled with technical jargon, and often difficult to understand – let alone affect public opinion on a broad scale. Adam Ruben, the co-host of Outrageous Acts of Science, said it best: “nothing makes you feel stupid quite like reading a scientific journal article”, and unfortunately, he’s right. Jennifer Lopez, unlike the New England Journal of Medicine, is pretty, approachable, and her show will be very loosely based on a real scientific technique which may give people the impression that it contains enough information, accurate or not, to feel like they are ready to make an educated, nuanced decision about the future of genome editing. Despite my adoration of “On the 6”, I am unfortunately unconvinced that Jennifer Lopez will be impartial or informed enough to provide viewers with enough background knowledge to form an appropriately nuanced opinion on genome editing. The goal of this article is not to give you a crash course on genome editing, frankly very few are qualified to do so. The critical upshot is to recognise the importance of maintaining some perspective on the topic as a whole, and to try to convince you that it is worth your time to learn about gene editing before you may need to vote on it.
Broadly put, genome editing is defined as changes made in our DNA sequence as a result of a double-stranded DNA break that results from the addition of engineered nucleases into the cell. In other words, we take some molecule that can associate with a specific region of our DNA, and then we use another molecule to break our DNA at that region. Once we have our break in the DNA, we can either allow the cell to try and fix itself, often leading to mutation, or we can insert our own genetic instructions into the region that we cut. With this process, we have developed methods that can destroy genes and their regulators, as well as insert new genes wherever we want. These breaks in the DNA sequence, followed by repair or insertion, have potentially very pertinent applications in agriculture, environment, research, and medicine.
All life on earth uses DNA as their genetic instructions, thus the same tools are available for use in many fields. Consider for example, in agriculture, entire genetic pathways can be inserted into plants, resulting in crops like the famous, vitamin A-enriched golden rice, which is given to populations without access to sufficient amounts of vitamin A, putting them at risk of blindness and death. Specifically, there have been 1.25 million deaths from Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries since 1998.
With respects to the environment, researchers can use similar gene editing technologies to sway the frequencies of genetic material in a population. Though this sounds like mundane scientific jargon, this tool could potentially influence the population of malaria carrying mosquitos by decreasing their abundance or by making them less virulent in affected countries. This provides an ideal solution in malaria-affected countries, by both maintaining the mosquito population and reducing the virulence of disease-carrying insects, this solution offers the opportunity to decrease the incidence of malaria all while maintaining essential food webs in regions native to the mosquito.
In research, gene editing technologies have opened the door to better examination and understanding of the functionality of genes, as well as how they are regulated. These techniques have also been used as building blocks for newer genetic techniques that can change how genes act without altering the DNA sequence. These novel techniques may be able to provide highly specific therapies without altering an individual’s DNA sequence, allowing for situations wherein the advantages of genome editing can be given without the ethical and practical concerns surrounding the practice. And of course, finally, there is medicine, where researchers have shown the ability to partially restore the dystrophin protein in mice with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a single gene disorder that results in poor muscle growth, leading to the possibility for a potential cure in humans down the line. The current prognosis of DMD on average results in children being wheelchair-bound before their 14th birthdays, and dead before their 30th.
Embryonically editing the dystrophin gene would result in a cure (or reduction of severity in phenotype) for the child as well as all progeny that the patient may bear, as embryonic gene editing would carry over to the child’s gametes. This of course is a double edged sword however, since any decision that you make for your child could have implications on all future generations in your family tree. Therefore it is extremely important to know what is being edited, what its implications are, and how long these edits will be maintained within the population. Furthermore, it is important to ask what (if anything) in the human genome can and should be edited, as they are often not the same. Cellular toxicity from gene therapy, polygenic traits (many genes affecting one trait), and pleiotropy (one gene affecting many traits) are just some of the reasons why it may be impossible to use genome editing to make someone smarter, prettier, or be able to frame a baby as a murderer before they’re born.
All of these examples hope to convey one simple message: genome editing is a tool, and a very important one at that. Despite all the ethical and moral noise that surrounds this debate, it remains simply a method that breaks a molecule in a controlled way before adding to or removing from that molecule. Because of this, genome editing is not inherently unethical, and it is not the cure to all human disease, but that is okay. Due to both the practical application and ethical implications of gene editing, it may soon become a topic of debate in an election that you can vote in. So, before that day, I beg you to learn what genome editing is for yourself and for you to develop a nuanced opinion of it, rather than letting Jennifer Lopez teach you in C.R.I.S.P.R.