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CRISPR: Why you should care about gene editing

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Posted on June 13, 2019 |
By Students in Chem 0322 at Middlebury College



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With the expansive genome sequencing of humans, animals and plants, researchers now have access to information that would allow specific manipulation of gene sequences. Using CRISPR technology, selected genes can be altered. This has incredible implications for the future of humanity as well as our ecosystems and earth as we know it.

Through CRISPR gene editing, we can develop animals that produce more fur or leaner meat. Agriculturally, we can grow plants that are resistant to fungi and insects, eliminating the need for pesticides that pollute the environment and harm humans and animals alike. These are just a few of the ways CRISPR could revolutionize agriculture and livestock production.

Using CRISPR on food crops could also change the way we treat food allergies. Scientists have identified the protein-producing genes that cause allergic reactions to certain foods; and editing those genes with CRISPR could eliminate the specific allergens. This could be relevant for anything from gluten in wheat to certain proteins in eggs or dairy, like casein in milk. With the increasing prevalence of food allergies in children across the U.S., this is a particularly attractive use for this gene-editing technology.

The possible uses for CRISPR are myriad: more nutritious foods, more eco-friendly livestock, and even mosquitoes free of malaria and West Nile virus, to name a few. However, arguably the most significant yet alarming application for CRISPR is that we can use this technology to edit the human genome. The greatest impact may lie in the feasibility of correcting and potentially eliminating harmful genetic diseases and conditions. Many debilitating disorders, such as sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease, are caused by detectable mutations in the human genome. The corresponding genes could easily be edited with CRISPR. These genetic conditions and many others could be solved with gene therapy, or even prevented before conception, through pioneering, albeit controversial, germline editing. Furthermore, CRISPR could transform how we treat cancer by reprogramming the genetic code of immune cells to target cancerous tumor cells. This potential treatment in the growing area of cancer immunotherapy could replace toxic chemotherapy and radiation treatment, broadening the available options for cancer patients.

Although the concept of permanently editing one’s genome may be unnerving, the potential that CRISPR holds is undeniable. CRISPR applications could permanently eliminate suffering and sickness, advance our food production industries, and protect our steadily deteriorating environment. This promising technology could permeate all of our lives in ways that were previously unimaginable.

As the full potential of CRISPR is realized, we will have to decide as a species what we want to do with this power and how we want to do it. This decision won’t just be made in law or scientific convention; it will be made in the form of countless personal choices on the part of scientists and consumers as well.

Farmers will also have to decide whether to use CRISPR. We talked to some local farmers about this and found a variety of opinions and mixed feelings about gene editing. “When I came into farming, a big reason to get into it was to fight against genetically modified organisms. And that’s mostly because I thought that and still feel that they are made by corporations that farmers become reliant on,” said Seth Ross of MoSe farm in Orwell.

On the other hand, Ross is cautiously optimistic about using CRISPR to prevent disease in his cattle and cut down on antibiotic use.

“If there was a way to cut out a disease, I guess I would be OK with that,” he said. “As long as we’re not mixing genetics from other things (traditional GMOs). That’s an ethical line I don’t know how comfortable I am with.”

From a business perspective, CRISPR may increase efficiency and make the most economical sense.

“We’ve always gotta be willing to adapt and change,” said dairy farmer Chase Goodrich of Goodrich Family Farm in Salisbury. “If we were stuck in our ways of how we did things in the ’50s, we’d have been gone a long time ago.”

Because of its efficiency, CRISPR might even be mobilized to fight world hunger. At the same time, Ross Conrad of Dancing Bee Gardens in Middlebury noted that edited genes flow through the ecosystem, from plants to pollinators to the human microbiome, in ways that are yet poorly understood.

Do we embrace CRISPR as a solution to problems in food production, or is the risk of ecological fallout too great without further research? In the end food companies will only produce CRISPR food if farmers grow it, voters allow it and consumers buy it. The decision about whether or not CRISPR should be used to modify food will be made by anyone who walks down the aisles of a grocery store or enters a voting booth.

Other decisions will require more thought than a grocery store selection. Our poll shows that the majority of people in the area would consider buying CRISPR edited food or getting CRISPR treatment for their own genetic diseases. When we asked people if they would want their unborn child to receive CRISPR treatment, though, responses got more complicated. Many people responded with more questions. How expensive would the treatment be? How effective and safe is the treatment for that disorder? What defines a problematic “unhealthy” gene?

CRISPR has the potential to eliminate a gene from an entire population, but th

ere is considerable debate over whether some genetic disorders, like autism, congenital disabilities, and disorders of sexual differentiation are diseases or just different ways of being.

CRISPR could also aggravate health disparities caused by differential access to healthcare. Those who can’t afford health insurance or are stigmatized in medical settings suffer worse health outcomes than the general population because they have less access to health resources. When CRISPR becomes a health resource, these health disparities could become genetic disparities.

The question of where we should go with CRISPR carries with it a whole host of questions about healthcare reform, agriculture, social prejudices and personal ethics. The future of CRISPR will contain a lot of tough decisions. But if we go forward with principles rooted in equity, anti-racism and responsibility, the positive potential of CRISPR could be beyond anything we’ve seen before.

Whether you would use it or not, it is important that all of us be informed about the uses and limitations of CRISPR so that we can have productive conversations about how we will live with this new technology.

This package was produced by Middlebury College students Emma White, Ashley Wang, Jeanelle Tsai, Hayden Smith, Emma Norton, Chloe Levins, Will Kelley, Anna Goldstein, Luna Gizzi, Cleo Davidowitz, Anthony Bongiorno and Liam Bent, under the direction of Lindsay Repka, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

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