Since the game-changing CRISPR-Cas9 methodology was first harnessed for genome editing seven years ago, endless possibilities have been explored by a wide range of industries.
Biochemists the world over are working around the clock to test the boundaries and limitations of this innovative practice. Meanwhile everyone from big pharma to agriculture, food science, medical, botany, energy, manufacturing, chemistry and, of course, the military, is wringing their hands at the infinite potential of this innovative and evolving method.
This sophisticated gene editing technique is light years beyond the heavy handed DNA altering methods that were used to help produce insulin. Gene editing with CRISPR is said to be as simple as changing computer code with the right software. CRISPR systems are not only simpler, but faster and cheaper than preceding methods. Beyond the knowhow, all that’s needed is the right lab equipment and a carefully selected sample of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR for short. So, where can you find this magical protein elixir with the clumsy name? Bacteria.
Utilizing these repeated helix strands, scientists can precisely target, cut and even replace snippets of genetic material and, essentially, alter the DNA of any organism on Earth – bacteria, viruses, mold, plants, coral, insects, reptiles, birds, fish, mammals, and yes, humans.
A new era of medical advancement
The good news about CRISPR, and there is a lot of it, is that scientists are now more hopeful than ever that we can find a cure for cancer and other aggressive diseases. We are about to embark on a new era of detecting, treating and even preventing diseases. Early progress has already been made with sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis. Cancer and HIV may be next. Truly, we may soon have the capability of eliminating strands of DNA that make someone predisposed to a hereditary illness.
This may be the most exciting potential use for CRISPR, but also one that raises flags and triggers arguments. There’s a fine line between therapy (disease curing) and enhancement (self-improvement, similar in vein to plastic surgery) and conditions (deafness, dwarfism) and diseases. There’s also gene editing vs. gene selection, or germline modification. The former may be practiced on an embryo to reduce the risk of a hereditary illness, while the latter may be used to reduce the likelihood of being overweight or having brown eyes. Debating viable vs. non-viable gene editing and selection will likely become a future political hot button. Assuming for a moment that common sense will prevail and that the future of CRISPR will be in responsible and necessary practice, the medical applications are profound. We will soon have the power to reduce human suffering in unprecedented ways.
New doors will open into disease research, organ transplant and drug discovery. New medications will be developed far more frequently as CRISPR opens up a new assortment of chemicals, compounds and specially designed molecules. Mother Nature could soon become fair game as the science community may soon be toying with the idea of saving dying species from extinction, rescuing dying coral reefs and other eco-systems. And as if that wasn’t enough to get the environmentalists excited, scientists will also be able to explore new possibilities for advancements with biofuels and eco-friendly energy alternatives.
Applications for seemingly every industry
Meanwhile, farmers may be able to protect crops from insects, fungi and even severe climate like droughts and floods. And speaking of insects, CRISPR has already been tested on mosquitos to see if there might be a whole new way to reduce the spread of malaria.
Of course, businesses of all sorts will be lining up to realize the potential benefits. Manufacturers will have new materials to work with that are lighter, sturdier or cheaper to produce. The food industry will have a field day with heartier vegetables and new varieties of fruit. Botanists will have new ways of studying plants and zoologists new ways of studying animals.
It won’t all happen at once and there will be bumps in the road as we figure out the limitations and challenges inherent in this very new and powerful advancement. The potential for CRISPR applications may well be limitless. Score one for mankind. We may actually be on the precipice of making the world a better place to live.
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